Nvidia buys ray-tracing firm RayScale for hybrid graphics

Nvidia said Friday at that it has bought the ray-tracing company RayScale. The purchase has a lot of significance in the war of words between Nvidia and Intel over graphics.

The new acquisition could help Nvidia bridge two different techniques for drawing 3-D pictures on a computer screen. Terms of the deal, first reported by News.com, were not reported.

Intel’s researchers have been touting ray-tracing for years. I wrote about the competition between ray tracing and rasterization – the technique used by graphics companies — back in 2006. Intel’s experts contended that ray tracing was a more efficient way to draw pictures on a screen.

As its name implies, it involves shooting a ray from a single point in a 3-D scene. If the ray hits an object, it assumes that whatever is behind the object is obscured and therefore doesn’t have to be drawn. Ray-tracing is supposedly better suited for the CPU (Nvidia disputes this) and so Intel is naturally a big proponent of it. The technique used to take too much horsepower, but now Intel contends that modern CPUs have the oomph to do it. Intel has shown Quake IV running on an eight-core CPU using ray-tracing techniques.

Rasterization, meanwhile, is getting more complicated. The graphics processor, such as those made by Nvidia, makes a “pass” at drawing a scene by rasterizing, or layering image effects such as colors, shadows, and lighting upon a scene. It does this repeatedly until the 3-D scene looks just right.

Now Nvidia hasn’t necessarily thrown in the towel by buying this small Salt Lake City company. And, despite all of its blustering, Intel hasn’t made real-time ray tracing on the PC attractive enough for anyone to seriously consider it.

I spoke with Peter Shirley, chief technology officer of RayScale and a professor at the University of Utah, at dinner on Thursday night. He wowed the fairly-geeky Peter Glaskowsky (a CNET blogger) with his knowledge of color gamuts. Shirley and Glaskowsky have both read huge tomes on color graphics. Shirley said that it might be possible to create hybrid techniques that use both rasterization and ray tracing. That’s what some animated movies such as “Shrek The Third” do.

So don’t interpret this move as Nvidia giving up and agreeing with Intel. That’s a long way from happening.