Start-up Caustic targets ray tracing for graphics

Founded by three engineers from Apple, Caustic Graphics promises to speed up the realistic renderings through a combination of chips and software.

A start-up called Caustic Graphics aims to etch a place for itself in PC graphics, using a technique more common in Hollywood than in Silicon Valley.

Caustic One accelerator card
Caustic One accelerator card Caustic Graphics

Tantalizingly for those in the high-tech industry, the company was founded by a trio of engineers from Apple, including James McCombe, a twentysomething who worked on graphics used in the iPhone and iPod, according to a write-up on Caustic posted late Sunday in the online version of The Wall Street Journal.

Caustic Graphics is focusing on ray tracing, a method for rendering computer-generated graphics that promises more realistic--even photorealistic--images than those that come out of rasterization, the technique typically used in PC games. But ray tracing takes much more processing power and isn't likely to displace rasterization anytime soon.

Still, the promise is there, and no less a tech luminary than Intel has its eye on ray tracing, arguing that the technique can run better on general-purpose chips such as its Core 2 Quad than on graphics processors. In 2008, graphics chip heavyweight Nvidia bought RayScale, a ray-tracing specialist.

With 35 employees and $11 million in funding, San Francisco-based Caustic says it's getting closer to the goal of developing an interactive form of ray tracing and can move data more efficiently to graphics processors, the Journal reported. According to the article:

The company says its software and chips allow graphics chips to carry out ray-tracing calculations at a 20-fold speed-up compared with existing PC hardware. It said it expects to deliver chips by early 2010 that will be about 200 times faster.

In a demonstration, Caustic executives manipulated a photo-quality image of a sports car, removing components and changing lighting and background settings to change reflections on the vehicle's surface.

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