The big event last month was Seybold in San Francisco where Steve Jobs, now acting CEO of Apple, schmoozed the design community, Adobe finally abandoned its coolness to Rhapsody and other cross-platformer design software houses expressed their undying support for the Mac.
Microsoft’s Bill Gates was in another auditorium calmly announcing that his Evil Empire would soon be taking over publishing. In support of this, Quark said it was porting itself over to the DEC Alpha chip-based version of the Windows NT platform. This chip now runs at 533MHz.
Clone-dumper Apple’s shot in the foot for September was the announcement that it wasn’t taking any more orders for the PowerMac 9600/350, the 350MHz machine it launched the month before. Our own Computer Warehouse, had been a victim of the clone thing, and was about to sell Mac clones using Motorola Tanzania boards. Actually it’s now doing just that but with OS 7.6 included. You go out and spend around 80 and you’ve still got a very keenly priced Mac system.
The most interesting and depressing positions brought back by our mates from Seybold were those for high-end stuff – that is 3D, animation, video and the like, NT looked set for a fairly straight and steady rise to pre-eminence and Apple, never taken seriously by the 3D jocks, a simultaneous steady decline.
The real arguments were about how long the crossover would take – two years or three. Microsoft’s acquisition several years ago of the hitherto Silicon Graphics application SoftImage was being cited as the pivotal move in this scenario underlined by the news that SGI is to port to the NT platform its primary software Alias Wavefront. These applications are unlikely then to be translated to the Mac. Although high-end (aka high-priced) Silicon Graphics kit turned over to the tune of around 625m in a recent financial quarter, it is not all necessarily light years ahead of NT. Last year a local test, recently confirmed, of SoftImage showed an average dual Pentium NT box running the application faster than an average SGI machine which cost almost half as much again.
The extraordinary trixel algorithms of Dr Midgal
The slowness of the Web has long raised the issue of file size. If you can’t speed up the Internet maybe you can reduce the size of graphics files so they take less time to download. The admirable Kai Kraus recently bought Real Time Geometry and thus access to the trixel algorithms of Dr Midgal. Trixels? OK, instead of your traditional polygons think of 3D vectors, point clouds as they’ve sometimes been called. Each point is described mathematically in terms of x, y and z co-ordinates and, in a subsequent mode known as triangulated texture mapping (TTM), has red, green and blue attributes attached.
As with 2D vectors it’s possible to scale up and down without loss of detail. The actual number of points visible at any one time depends on the position of the object in the 3D environment. An object far away has a lot less than one close up, so files don’t contain redundant information. That is excellent for movies, because instead of storing a lot of slightly differently sized images of, say, an approaching sludge monster there is a small file containing the relevant point data and the application uses it to calculate the changing position of the monster, and maps its skin. It maps it faster that an average screen refresh rate thereby rendering movement seamless and more or less lifelike. So they say.
All this is made possible by the very fast Delaunay triangulation algorithms developed by Real Time Geometry boss and former quantum gravity physicist Sasha Midgal. The algorithms are intelligent enough to work out which points are more important than others. So RTG co-ordinates can be written into a JPEG file so that any graphics app can read the 3D file as if it were a standard 2D file. So too for VRML files: an RTG movie will start playing almost as soon as it starts downloading. It all depends whether Kraus can get the 3D design community behind the Midgal algorithms and he’s giving a talk next month at our very own Apple Expo called Pixels, Trixels, Voxels and Fun.
NT motherboards and indeed complete 300MHz NT machines have just appeared on the market equipped with the Accelerated Graphics Port interface. The AGP interface works by bypassing the processor chip and talking directly to main memory for many of its functions. It does this via a fast, wide-bandwidth bus which coexists with the standard PCI bus.
Intel had decided to restrict AGP technology to boards which had the proprietary Intel Pentium II-only slots, known imaginatively as Slot-1. VIA came up with this new VP3 chipset for AGP which allows you to use much cheaper MMX Pentiums and the even cheaper clone chips. Log on to www.agpforum.org/index.htm for the AGP forum and www.via.com.tw/ products.htm# Chipsets for details of the VIA VP3 chipset