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Cover Story: Linux 3D - The Future Looks Bright

"It's...the ideal platform for creating custom helper applications and affordable render farms"

Linux has come a long way since its inception in 1991 - from a command-line only OS, to its first GUI in 1994. Today it's competing with (and in many cases surpassing) the performance of commercial operating systems since it's both stable and processor efficient, which makes Linux the perfect platform for running 3D software, not to mention playing games. OpenGL (the open standard graphics library originally developed by SGI, pioneers in computer visualization) is also fully supported under Linux, meaning that accelerated viewport previews, such as rotating around a textured and shaded model, and real-time or near real-time playback of scenes (as opposed to choppy, three-frames-per-second animation) is possible. These are important factors in making Linux the choice of film, effects, and gaming studios. Add the fact that Linux is open source and low cost, and it's also the ideal platform for creating custom helper applications and affordable render farms.

Adding to the attractiveness of Linux, major software developers in the 3D field also offer their tools for use in Linux, including:

  • Maya (www.alias.com): Academy Award-winning 3D animation, modeling, and effects software
  • XSI (www.softimage.com): High-end compositing and 3D production solution
  • Houdini (www.sidefx.com): Advanced 3D and visual effects software
  • RenderMan (https://renderman.pixar.com): Academy Award winning advanced renderer used in Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and other Pixar films
It's not just the software developers who are supporting Linux 3D with gusto these days. Graphics hardware vendors have also gotten in on the act, with NVIDIA initially developing Gelato - their GPU-accelerated high-performance rendering software - for use only in Linux. Meanwhile, Sun Microsystems is working on Project Looking Glass, a 3D desktop that aims to revolutionize the way we work and interact with our computers.

3D Applications

There was a time when Blender (www.blender3d.com) was one of the only 3D software packages available under Linux. While it's a capable program, studios needed to have a choice and be able to use the software they'd been working with under Irix, Solaris, and even Windows. Porting to Linux was a no-brainer for those 3D software companies that already supported other forms of Unix, which was most of them.

With the major commercial 3D applications available for Linux, administrators at studios switching from legacy SGI to Linux can easily deploy low-cost render farms and take advantage of the X window system's network transparency, sending OpenGL rendering commands over the network and executing programs on one computer while displaying the results on another. It's simple to port their existing proprietary plug-ins and compositors over to Linux from other Unix platforms. With the lower costs, smaller studios - including one-man operations - can now be competitive as well.

This low- or no-cost OS is also ideal for creating render farms - clusters of interconnected PCs running as dedicated render slaves to crank out frame after frame of 3D animation in considerably less time than a single workstation could possibly do it. Software companies have even changed their licensing structure to make this possible, in some cases providing unlimited rendering licenses for their users and significantly reducing cost overheads in the process. It often halves the software costs for studios running Linux-based render farms rather than paying for 25 or 100 licenses of Windows XP Professional. If a studio decides to go with the free, unsupported version of Red Hat instead of using the same 100 PC render farms running Windows XP, they save around $18,500. That's no small sum.

Two of the key applications in this field are Alias Maya and Softimage XSI, which I was able to personally review (see Figures 1 and 2). I'll address this more in a moment.

Video Hardware

Video hardware support for Linux users working with 3D applications has also come a long way. At one time there was no Glide (proprietary drivers for 3dfx Voodoo video cards), no Utah GLX (a hardware-accelerated implementation of OpenGL and the GLX protocol), no DRI (Direct Rendering Infrastructure, which allows direct access to graphics hardware), and Mesa (the OpenGL alternative 3D graphics library) was sorely lacking, performance-wise. Today, companies like NVIDIA are extremely serious about Linux. As an example, while working on this article, trying to install drivers for an ATi Radeon 8500 video card under Red Hat 9 ended in failure and frustration after over an hour of fiddling. Gainward (www.gainwardusa.com) was kind enough to loan me a GeForce 6800 GT Ultra 2400 Golden Sample to try under Linux (see Figure 3); setting up the drivers took five minutes thanks to NVIDIA's Linux installer, which takes care of kernel and processor considerations behind the scenes. OpenGL is also fully supported by these drivers, along with video acceleration, which turns out to be fast, smooth, and stable. Unfortunately you can't say this about all 3D features under Linux these days with all cards, but now that some vendors are filling the gap, others are sure to follow just to keep up.

One of the biggest advantages of Linux pointed out to me by NVIDIA's Andrew Fear (software product marketing manager) and Andy Ritger (who leads the Linux graphics driver team) is the extensibility and openness of OpenGL. They can easily add support for new OpenGL features to their drivers and have complete access to its API. As Andy Ritger put it, "We have a lot more control over how the system works. We present the OpenGL entry points. On Windows, there are a lot more constraints. Microsoft defines the environment within which you work."

They also spoke about Gelato, a real-time 3D rendering and compositing application developed by NVIDIA, originally available only under Linux, which takes full advantage of hardware GPU acceleration on their Quadro FX video cards (see Figure 4). Fear said, "The Gelato Team has found that Linux is a great architecture for them because, number one, it's fast, and, number two, the target market that wants this product is familiar with Linux and uses it today." Ritger followed this up with, "Gelato is a prime example of a product that's being developed and targeted for Linux, and a Windows port is kind of an afterthought." Visit http://film.NVIDIA.com/page/gelato.html for more information.

NVIDIA's importance in 3D Linux today can't be ignored, given the still tenuous relationship between some other video hardware vendors and Linux. Playing with Alias Maya Unlimited and Softimage XSI Advanced afforded an excellent opportunity to see how Gainward's latest NVIDIA 6800 card performed, and there was no disappointment. When I purchased my ATi Radeon 8500 card in 2001 it was cutting edge. Now it's not powerful enough to run XSI under Linux even after I got it working with the latest ATI drivers. As a relative Linux newbie, having installed my first distro in April of this year, if I had it to do all over again I'd have gone the NVIDIA route from the beginning. Their drivers and performance are solid across platforms and their support is excellent. It was like shipping a loved one off to boot camp when I had to box the card up and send it back to Gainward.

Project Looking Glass

As Linux is taking over the 3D market, 3D is poised to take over the Linux desktop thanks to Sun's open source and free "Project Looking Glass." The goal of Looking Glass is to provide users with a next-generation 3D desktop that will change the way we interact with the PC. Sun is encouraging community involvement by allowing members to contribute their own images and scenes.

Juan Soto, director of advanced technologies at Sun Microsystems and manager of Project Looking Glass, is very excited about the project. "The possibilities are endless. This thing's awesome. I love this work!" As Juan spoke about Looking Glass, it was hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. He presented Looking Glass as visually elegant and consistent with the way you interact with the desktop today, while bringing elements of 3D into today's desktop experience. He went on to describe the potential of 3D to show the relationships between items in a formerly two-dimensional spreadsheet. Obviously, 3D literally adds a new dimension to the desktop as well, and unlocking the Z-axis means more screen real estate for placing icons, parking inactive windows, and more room for various applications (see Figure 5).

Looking Glass uses Java technology and takes advantage of unused resour-ces like the 3D engine built into most of today's video cards, harnessing that untapped horsepower and putting it to use by displaying 3D elements on the 2D desktop. Many Linux distros are interested in including Looking Glass in future releases, and software companies see a great opportunity to provide richer information to their users. The potential here is huge, with the possibility of 3D file managers, spreadsheets, and just about anything the mind can conjure.

Sun's already created a demonstration of a CD jukebox, where you can cycle through a 3D representation of a CD collection and choose the one you want to play (see Figure 6). Or you can flip your browser 180 degrees and type notes on the back of it or access its Properties list. The potential to create strong visual analogies using Looking Glass is limited only by developers' imaginations. Best of all, as Juan pointed out, there's no glove, beanie, or 3D glasses necessary - although if someone wanted to tie in a special device, that would also be possible and add even more interactivity.


Of course, no Linux 3D coverage would be complete without games. While Windows still wears the crown as king of PC-based gaming platforms, Linux has quite a few good games available, with more being added all the time. The relatively new must-have game, Doom 3 (see Figure 7), should be available for Linux as you read this article, with final preparation for Linux Doom 3 servers happening as I write and the client soon to follow. For the time being, the game is playable under Cedega, the new name for TransGaming's WineX. Presently, there are some great 3D games that run natively under Linux, including Serious Sam, Tribes 2, Unreal Tournament (original, 2003, and 2004), Quake (1, 2 and 3), America's Army, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, Savage, and Neverwinter Nights. Don't forget the games starring Tux-like Tux Racer and Tux Cart, which are available only under Linux. For even more Linux games, visit www.icculus.org/lgfaq/gamelist.php.

Game players may also be interested to know that, according to Andrew Fear and Andy Ritger, NVIDIA Linux drivers are on par with their Windows drivers, performance-wise. There's no advantage or disadvantage to playing a Quake 3 Arena death match under Linux versus XP. For now, the only disadvantage is game manufacturers who ignore the Linux user base. Luckily, this too seems to be changing. Some game studios are even developing RPGs under Linux.

Looking Forward

As the Linux desktop moves easily into the 64-bit world, Microsoft continues to struggle to get their next desktop OS to market. As 3D software companies begin to develop 64-bit versions of their applications, Linux is already able to take advantage of the increased memory address space and processing power. Meanwhile, peering into the future with Looking Glass, we see that Linux is coming into its own as an innovative, user-friendly platform that will probably be copied by future versions of commercial OSes, and attract new users with its promise to improve usability and workflow. The future's looking bright, indeed.

Editor's Note:
The Gelato images accompanying this article were created by Tweak Films


More Stories By Bryan Hoff

Bryan Hoff is a freelance web designer, digital artist and animator. He has worked on everything from movie and television effects to online games, 3D corporate animation, Flash, and traditional web site design.

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