If you have been interested by GPUs for a while, you have probably seen the original Dawn demo which was launched to show what the GeForce 5 Series, code-named NV30, was capable of. Although that chip was arguably not NVIDIA’s finest, the Dawn demo did make an impression and reached cult status in some circles. That was in 2002.
10 years after, NVIDIA comes back with an updated edition that is powered by the latest Kepler architecture from NVIDIA, which is best represented by the GeForce GTX 690 dual-GPU card. And things have indeed changed in this new demo. First of all, Dawn doesn’t walk on a floating branch anymore, as the polygon budget was limited in 2002. In fact, the original Dawn environment polygon count went from 7,000 triangles in 2002 to an astonishing 4,000,000 in 2012 – this is using DX11’s tessellation on top of already very complex geometry.
The skin shading uses a more realistic shader that works by taking into account that human skin has multiple layers through which the light goes, bounces and eventually comes back towards the camera (that’s why skin has this “flesh” color). If you are curious about how this works, here is a good pointer. This technique has also been adapted and used in top titles like the Uncharted series on PS3.
Of course, the environment is lit by many lights that cast shadows and all, but you should also look at more subtle effects like the depth of field and bokeh which focus the attention to the character. Finally, check out the wind blowing in her hair. I personally think that the rendering of those hair is amazing, and believe me, I’ve seen a thing or two in that area. If you want to know how this works, I recommend checking this excellent paper from Sarah Tariq/NVIDIA, as I think that this demo uses a variant of the techniques described in that paper.
New Dawn is a very cool tech demo that’s worth checking (it will be available for download “this month”). I’ve included the 2012 and 2012 videos below to show you how far we’ve come in 10 years of real-time computer graphics. It’s only fair to mention that Dawn has been originally designed for NVIDIA by Steven Geisler, one of the best CG character designers that I know of. You can see more of his work at stevengeisler.com.