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Nvidia touts its latest graphical sorcery in ‘New Dawn’ tech demo

What a difference a decade makes for a lonely fairy.

Ten years ago, video card manufacturing company Nvidia introduced “Dawn,” a tech demo showcasing the capabilities of its GeForce FX graphics processor unit (GPU) via the agile acrobatics of a silent-but-blissful fairy. Although impressive, the demo suffered from hardware limitations preventing a more fully realized environment for the pirouetting pixie and resulted in a heavy reliance on bloom and depth-of-field effects — a novel approach, but it wouldn’t last long in an industry constantly redefining its visual standards.

Now, Nvidia takes us for another visit into the enchanted forest with “New Dawn,” an updated demo featuring the same titular fairy showing off the might of the company’s powerful Kepler GPUs. Dawn teems with a bevy of visual improvements underscoring Nvidia’s major strides in graphics power over the years, including optimizations of her hair into looking “soft and silky as if she just jumped out of the shower after an extensive conditioner routine.” It certainly isn’t Maybelline.

Check out both demos videos below. For easy comparison, we’ve included an explanatory list of New Dawn’s visual updates.

  • Fully modeled environment: Dawn’s original home, according to Nvidia, was a “giant, glowing cube map,” a six-sided texture representing the background. It certainly got the job done, but it definitely skimped on important elements such as perspective and something called “trees.” New Dawn begins with a brief pan of a full-fledged forest complete with gentle breezes, glimmering flowers, and sprawling vines.
  • Screen space ambient occlusion: Ambient occlusion approximates the way light radiates off individual surfaces. The screen space version, first developed by a Crytek engineer in 2007, improves this process for less hardware strain. Spot the diffused shadows on Dawn’s face cast by her nose, lips, and eyelids. That’s screen space ambient occlusion hard at work.
  • DirectX 11 tessellation: In its most basic form, tessellation involves breaking down a polygon, the building block of nearly every video game’s visuals, into smaller pieces storing and displaying additional textures. Using the latest version of DirectX, a gaming- and multimedia-centric programming interface for developers by Microsoft, New Dawn’s tessellation jumps out via the smoothness of Dawn’s skin and the roughness of the tree branch’s bark.
  • 40,000 strands of hair: Dawn’s original ‘do involved a closely cropped Caesar holding 1,700 strands of hair barely budging as she moved. After a quick spray from a bottle of the tried-and-true “Fairy Follicle Fixer 5000,” Dawn now sports 40,000 individual strands of hair on her head using tessellation for a lively wavy effect. Nvidia says the demo uses “a special hair smoothing process inspecting each strand and blurs them in the combing direction.”
  • Subsurface scattering: Another piece of tech dealing with light, subsurface scattering displays the behavior of illumination penetrating a translucent object and exiting in a dispersed pattern. Think of holding an egg up to a light to check what’s inside. The light passes through the egg and gives it slight transparency below its surface. Dawn’s skin receives a similar effect in the new demo, where it’s most notably visible on her outline and curves.

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