'Ray-tracing' gives animation a new image

VW invest in new design software

Saarbruecken. Volkswagen is one of the first automakers to try ray-tracing, a new software that is claimed to show the most realistic images of cars to date on computer screens.

Computer-animated representations of cars and their components today are a matter of course in vehicle design. But so far there has been a lack of images that seem nearly real, allowing a detailed play of light, shadows and reflections.

That gap is being filled with the so-called real-time ray-tracing.

With this method, it is possible to exactly determine how the optics of body surfaces or components, such as radiator grilles or side windows, are modified by bright light and reflection.

Better than computer games

VW invested 20 million euros, or $24 million at current exchange rates, to build two visualization centers where ray tracing and other computer animation is conducted.

"In the procedures up to now -- in their application in computer games, for example -- shadows are represented with tricks," said Philipp Slusallek, professor of computer graphics at Saarland University in Saarbruecken. "With ray tracing, it is possible for the first time to present shadows and reflections in a physically correct way."

Three-dimensional models are being rendered extremely realistically and can be moved and modified.

Vehicles or planes

Until the early 1990s, the ray-tracing procedure seemed too complex to be achievable in real time.

But in 1999 at Saarland University, Slusallek developed software capable of presenting objects as large as an airplane. With new algorithms, the lighting of objects can be completely worked out in a physically accurate manner, many times per second.

According to the university, the speed of the system during the vehicle design phase will make possible a savings of up to 30 percent. And planning errors and safety problems can be identified earlier.

InTrace, a spin-off firm founded by Slusallek, provided the software for the VW visualization centers.

The software is also in use at Audi, BMW and DaimlerChrysler. Among other uses, it is being deployed for headlight design.

"Design modifications can be examined immediately and interactively," Slusallek said. Models no longer need to be built to create a true representation.

Attractive to suppliers

Automotive suppliers are interested in the software as well, particularly once new generations of computers reduce the expense.

After creating the software, the Saarbruecken scientists developed a special graphic chip to meet the specific demands of ray tracing. It can produce photorealistic, three-dimensional graphics.

The prototype already delivers a greater 3-D graphic output than a number of PCs can create together.

With the new chip, the new technology is expected to also be ripe for the mass market.

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