With the advent of GPUs equipped with vertex shader processors, new ways of doing things have been made possible. Displacement mapping and depth-adaptive tessellation are some of the newest developments in hardware accelerated 3D graphics. They represent the equivalent of bump mapping and higher order surfaces, but taken one step further. The former technologies are planned for inclusion in DX9 capable hardware.
Game developers are very excited about these new technologies, but they are faced with market realities where the mainstream has only just begun to adopt DX8 capable graphics boards. Extensive research on my behalf has led to an engine that is capable of trilinear displacement mapping with depth-adaptive tessellation and this on DX8 capable hardware. The results you can experience with the Xvox demo that shows the case for terrain rendering.
The engine makes heavily use of the vertex shader processors, taking the load off the CPU. The displacement mapping is somewhat comparable to trilinear texture filtering. There are several mip-levels, each at a lower resolution. Instead of texels, the mipmap values now correspond to quadrangle geometry. For texture maps the values are the colors of the texel corners, for displacement maps the values are the height of the quadrangle corners.
There are several ways of using mipmaps. The goal of all methods is to show distant objects with less detail. This increases rendering speed and reduces aliasing. The most crude way is to switch the complete map from one level to a lower or higher detail level. The effect is rather disturbing as the switching is very noticeable. A more refined way is per vertex switching. The effect is less noticeable, you can compare this to bilinear texture filtering where you can see a line between the different mipmaps. A high quality method is trilinear filtering where you smoothly interpolate, per vertex, between the different mipmaps. The Xvox demo uses trilinear displacement map filtering. This is completely handled by the vertex shaders and thus there is no load on the CPU.
Some technical data:
The latter fact may seem odd. With texture mipmaps the maps are a quarter size the previous level. The displacement maps here each are 45 degrees rotated relative to a previous level. Compared to ususal mipmapping this results in a smoother and cleaner transition between miplevels,
The demo shows a terrain make up with a 1024x1024 displacement and texture map. These maps are repeated to make the scene very large. You can view the landscape from very near or very far. The engine applies the depth adaptive tessellation so that the framerate always is high and the number of triangles around 300 thousand per frame and this independent of the viewing position. Because of the trilinear displacement mapping the geometry is smoothly morphed into less detailed geometry as the viewing distance increases. You can view this geomorphing in action when switching to wireframe mode (W key). With a lower level of detail you can exactly see what happens under the hood.
Three numbers are shown :
The demo uses triple buffering with waiting for vsync in full screen mode. If in full screen mode you notice a significant drop in triangles per second because of waiting for vsync you may be able to increase the level of detail without losing frames (F3/F4).
You may also switch of waiting for vsync (V key), this will also result in double buffering, saving precious video memory at very high resolutions.
The automatic level of detail feature (A key) will adapt the scene complexity per frame to achieve 60 frames per seconds animation. This gives fluid animation on all video cards. Faster video cards will draw many more triangles per frame, rendering at highest possible geometric detail for a 60 Hz animation rate.
Notice that the 60 Hz can be different from the display refresh rate. In full screen mode you may need to switch of waiting for vsync, especially when the display refresh rate is 60 Hz or lower.
Next image is drawn with 200 thousand triangles. Without depth adaptive tessellation over 30 million triangles would be required
Depth adavtive tessellation in action. Three levels of detail are shown. They are drawn with 86, 107 and 160 thousand triangles.
For more information: