Nvidia's New Dawn offers Ten Year Retrospective On How Far We've Come

Back in November, 2002, Nvidia announced a line of GPUs it dubbed the GeForce FX. These cards were the first to integrate assets Nvidia had purchased from 3dfx (hence the name). NV claimed that these new cards would usher in the dawn of cinematic computing and the company released the eponymous "Dawn" demo to prove it. Now, ten years later, Nvidia has revisited the classic character and updated her for DirectX 11.

Here's the technical specs for the two scenes, but we thought it would be more interesting to compare visuals directly, especially since A New Dawn requires a Kepler GPU.

Click to enlarge

The first thing you notice about Dawn 1.0 is that she holds up pretty darn well for a character who just celebrated her tenth birthday. Her skin tones are a tad jaundiced for modern standards and her wings aren't translucent, but she doesn't look ten years old either.

The new demo is a rich forest interior with leaf, vine, and tree detail that puts the original to shame -- in 2002, it took so much processing power to draw Dawn that her background was an artistic blur designed to imply "forest." What's more striking than this, given that we're comparing the character, is the difference in how she moves. Watch the full Dawn video from 2002, and she still walks and changes positions like a marionette. She's square in Uncanny Valley territory, with animations that are close, but not quite human.

In New Dawn, these visual cues are much reduced. Dawn 2.0 moves more like a human and less like a puppet; her gestures and arm motions don't have the same programmed jerkiness.

Then, of course, there's the hair. Hair is notoriously computationally expensive, which is why the majority of CG animated characters sport short, cropped do's. Dawn's hair is short in both demos, but in the 2012 version there's a slider that can be adjusted to make her hair ripple in the wind. It's an impressive illustration of how much we've advanced in a such a short time -- in 2000, the long hair of Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within consumed a full third of the movie's render time while containing just 60,000 strands (half of a human's normal count). Nvidia didn't give a hair count for the character, but the animation is smooth and lifelike, even on a single GTX 670.

PC game graphics have felt hamstrung for years, artificially constrained by the limitations of console GPUs. It's great to see an updated example of what modern GPUs can do -- hopefully we'll see such effects translate through to shipping products sooner rather than later.