This was the first 3D graphics card for PC, do you remember it?
Real-time 3D graphics are those that are generated fast enough to give fluid movement speed. Today all computers and mobiles have this capacity, but this was not the case until the mid-90s, when they began to be standardized in video games. More specifically, due to the boom in arcade machines due to SEGA’s Model systems and in consoles due to the rise of PlayStation and Nintendo64. Today we are going to remind you the first ever 3D gaming graphics card for PCthe 3Dfx Voodoo Graphics.
Today the concept of a 3D card has disappeared as it was integrated into the graphics card, but in the beginning both components were separate and, therefore, we needed two cards: one for 2D and one for 3D. Although they have all inherited the basic way of working from the Silicon Graphics Reality Engine with improvements and additions over time, the truth is that the first models that came onto the market were poor in performance and were called 3D decelerators.
The history of 3Dfx Voodoo Graphics
In 1994, Gary Tarolli, Scott Sellers, and Ross Smith founded a company called 3Dfx Interactive. An emerging company that had a very short life, but that marked the world of PC video games during the second half of the 90s. A series of bad decisions and not knowing how to read the market led them to bankruptcy, however they have the honor of creating the first 3D card for video games, called Voodoo Graphics, which is also called SST-1 and thanks to its powerful and easy to program Glide graphics API I ended up dominating the 3D PC gaming market just like the Sound Blaster had with sound.
The origins of Voodoo Graphics can be found in Silicon Graphics’ Iris Indigo. A low-cost workstation he had worked at, Gary Tarolli. Its particularity is that it lacked the hardware to run the front end of the 3D pipeline. That is to say, it left the work of calculating the geometry of the scene to the processor, but the work of rasterization, texturing and drawing on the screen was carried out by said card. Principle they applied with the first 3Dfx product.
At the same time, another of the founders, Scott Settlers, created a company called Pellucid that was not very successful and whose objective was to create a graphic system that would allow a PC to have the same level as an SGI workstation, the result it was a double card baptized as Irisvision and sadly I go very unnoticed due to the lack of software and support. Frustrated, the Settlers himself brought Tarolli and Smith together. to found 3Dfx Interactive in 1994.
The first steps in the arcades
At that time, 3D graphics on PC were not very popular, at most we had DOOM and its clones that were based on the use of the Ray Casting technique with voxels or volumetric pixels, but nothing to use 3D graphics based on building the models with vertices. This was because the floating point computing power of processors like the 486 was limited. Silicon Graphics workstations used CPUs of the MIPS brand, now defunct. Which SONY and Nintendo would also adopt in their first consoles with support for three-dimensional graphics.
Because in his project he couldn’t copy the OpenGL or IrisGL that the Iris Indigo hardware was based on. So they made a copy of the modified API with some features removed to see how a 90 MHz Pentium could run the geometry of the scene, which would not run in the future Voodoo Graphics. They obtained more than satisfactory results, with an average of 300K triangles per second. On par with the arcade machines of the time and above PlayStation and Nintendo64.
The goal was to release the SST-1 or Voodoo Graphics first in arcades. In them it had begun to appear in a competition between SEGA and Namco that was really a covert competition between Martin Marrieta (later Lockhead Martin) and Evans & Sutherland. So 3Dfx via the possibility of entering that market, which was its initial objective.
Entry into the PC world
The luck of 3Dfx changed thanks to a carom, for years the price of RAM memory was through the roof due to the fact that in the middle of the MS-DOS era it was not usual to see memory configurations in large capacities. The paradox was that it was very cheap to manufacture, but since there was no demand from the applications, the manufacturers kept it at a premium. Which also affected the rest of the hardware.
The arrival of Windows 95 and the high demands on RAM for the time They plummeted the price of EDO RAM, which was used by Voodoo Graphics, and made it cost-effective to use for PCs.. However, it was necessary to adapt the games for the Glide API so that they could be used in all their glory. ANDhe first to do so was the first Tomb Raider and would be followed by an adapted version of Quake. Thanks to Voodoo Graphics, we went from seeing pixelated graphics at 320 x 240 pixels to 640 x 480. That is, a four-fold increase in resolution and with texture filtering and other effects.
Such was the impact and success that they began to fly from the stores and the rest of the companies began to create patches and updates for their games. The PC became from that point on the technological king in terms of games, proving to be years ahead of the consoles in terms of graphics technology.
Voodoo Graphics Architecture
You can see the Voodoo Graphics architecture in the diagram below, It is based on two different chips called FBI and TREX. Y the EDO RAM memory is divided into two different wells. In the first, both the image buffer and the depth buffer are drawn, and in the second, the textures are found, which are images used to be placed on top of objects to represent the materials they are made of.
Implemented a limited version of the pipeline 3D Y required an additional SVGA card to work, the two interfaced with each other via a VGA-to-VGA cable, and the Voodoo Graphics bypassed except with Glide or MiniGL (a stripped-down version of OpenGL) applications, at which point it took over. Of course, it had a series of resolution limitations, since could only output images at 640 x 480 or 800 x 600 pixels full screen. Since it lacked the necessary mechanisms to make a composite image buffer.
How did it work?
In each frame of the game, the Voodoo Graphics carried out the following steps in an orderly and reiterative way:
- The renderer processes the geometry of the scene and creates a screen list of everything Voodoo Graphics has to do with the different triangles that make it up. This list is sent through the PCI port, which should not be confused with the current PCI Express.
- The list of triangles is received on the fly by the FBI chip, which performs the rasterization process, which is to convert the 3D vector information into groups of pixels in 2D space so that TREX can process them as such.
- Once the FBI has created the groups of pixels, it’s time to send them to TREX, which will use its memory for textures to color each object in the correct way. This chip will also perform texture filtering, as well as some other color mixing process.
- In the last step, TREX returns the triangles in pixels already textured, to the FBI, which will be in charge of ordering them to write them in the image buffer for later sending to the monitor.
Finally, did you have this 3D card or any of its successors in your old PC? Leave it to us in the comments and share your memories.