How We Created Demos that Blur the Line Between Real and Rendered

by Brian Caulfield

NVIDIA’s Ian Williams calls the star of our latest demo — an 18-volt DeWalt power drill — “the talent.”

That’s because — with the help of our Iray rendering technology — Ian and his small team are turning this humble yellow-and-black gadget into our newest star.

It’s the latest chapter in a story we’ve been telling on social media for months now. We display images of real and digitally rendered objects side by side, and then ask if you can tell the difference. It’s fiendish fun.

Now we’re bringing this challenge to SIGGRAPH, the world’s top computer graphics conference. We’re so confident our new rendering technology mimics reality we’ve created a digital model of a drill to display side by side with a live high-definition image of the real thing. Let’s see if the experts can tell them apart.

One is a photo, the other can be rendered interactively using NVIDIA DesignWorks technology. Can you tell which is which?
One is a photo, the other can be rendered interactively using NVIDIA DesignWorks technology. Can you tell which is which?

The story behind our “real or rendered” story: we want to give designers the ability to see photorealistic images of their products as they create them with their favorite design tools. No rendering farm required. “This shouldn’t just be for people with million dollar budgets,” Ian says. “This should be for every designer.” 

In addition to the showstopper, our digital drill, Ian and his team have created a couple of “real or rendered” demos just for SIGGRAPH. The team has built a digital model of a Santa Cruz “Nomad” carbon bike. We’ll also show the 4N Sapphire, a $195,000 watch with exposed gears and wheels, complete with accurate movement, designed by François Quentin using Dassault’s Catia Live Rendering software, which uses Iray.

Sit down with Ian, director of applied engineering for our Professional Solutions Group, and he’ll show you how easy it is to manipulate the digital model of the DeWalt power drill his team created. He can spin the drill around with the flick of a mouse. Change the lighting with a few clicks. Even swap in new materials — brushed aluminum, for instance. Seconds later he’s looking at a photorealistic image of the results.

Drilling Down

All we needed to create this model was 3DS Max — a widely used digital design tool — and our Iray plug-in. The plug-in is one of a series we’re going to be releasing for some of the most popular design tools. Our goal: give you the ability to create photorealistic models of your work, in real time, in your favorite app.

Another NVIDIA-created tool at Ian’s disposal is our new Material Design Language. We created MDL so designers can add physically based digital versions of different materials inside their favorite apps. At SIGGRAPH, it’s all running on a Windows PC powered by a pair of Quadro M6000 graphics cards. No rendering farm required.

What’s striking, though, is how much the digital model resembles the real thing, which is displayed side by side in front of Ian on a 52-inch 4K display. The real drill sits just a few feet away. Its image is beamed to the display using a high-end 4K camera to ensure we capture every one of the drill’s details. Never before has a humble power drill received this kind of star treatment. 

Iray: On the Case

This set-up, of course, posed a design challenge of its own. To capture every detail on the real drill’s surface, Ian had to custom design and hand assemble a display case to make the real drill look as realistic as possible. His first attempt, a plain wooden box with a white exterior, failed to light the details on the stubby, nubby drill properly.

Our first attempt to build a box to display our drill didn’t work, we had to use our physically-based rendering tools to get it right.

To get it right, Ian consulted with NVIDIA’s creative team as well as design experts on the Iray team. They prototyped the perfect lightbox using Iray, so the team could visualize how light would interact with the drill. The result is a curved, black case, lit through multiple locations, including slats cut below, above and to the sides the drill. “We want every detail to pop,” Ian says. “We want you to feel like you can reach out and grab it.”

Star treatment: we used our rendering tools to create a special display case for our drill.

The only way for this untrained eye to tell the difference is to do just that. Stop by our booth #500 at SIGGRAPH to see it yourself.