(Source: lol screenzors)

Compare this image, with the image above. Note the missing components, and how they are present in the image above. These images will be combined to form the final image. This division is based on how fast each GPU is, and allows for near-linear scaling.  (Source: PC Perspective)

On the left the full screen is displayed, on the right one of the GPU's workload. Note the scene on the right is missing the floor, which is being rendered on the other GPU.  (Source: PC Perspective)
New chips open the door to gaming rigs with a mix of ATI and NVIDIA cards

NVIDIA is busily plugging away with its 200 series and marketing various SLI solutions in the form of anything from a pair of 8000 or 9000 cards to its top end -- a pair of 280 GTXs.  AMD is similarly pushing its 4850/4870 CrossFire solutions along with CrossFire for its new dual-GPU 4870 X2 cards.  The key thing is AMD/ATI cards are not compatible with NVIDIA cards -- CrossFire and SLI are two different technologies.  Furthermore, most motherboards either support SLI or support CrossFire -- most don't do both.

Enter Lucid, also known as LucidLogix, a fabless semiconductor designer (meaning it outsources its chips to other company's fabs, such as TSMC).  Lucid is far from a known name in the graphics industry, though that may soon change.  With the help of Intel Capital backing and over 50 patents, it has developed a technology that seems poised to rock the graphics industry.

The groundbreaking technology is titled the HYDRA Engine.  The accomplishment of the engine is nothing short of unbelievable to those who follow the graphics industry.  It uses hardware and software to allow virtually any AMD/ATI and NVIDIA GPU to work together and share workloads with the CPU, scaling programs almost linearly.  You could probably call the HYDRA Engine CrossFire-SLI, though you might run into a spot of legal trouble in trying to do so.

Lucid isn't just redeploying existing technologies -- it's improving on them.  AMD/ATI and NVIDIA use two technologies for their multi-GPU solutions.  One is split frame rendering, in which each card renders a part of the frame.  The drawback of this is that it requires synchronization of all texture and geometry data on both GPUs and thus memory bandwidth limitations from a single card remain.  The other solution commonly used is alternate frame rendering.  This approach also has a significant downside, in that it introduces latency in the time it takes to switch between GPU connections.

The HYDRA Engine offers a hybrid solution.  The heart of the engine is the silicon chip, which splits up the graphics workload in hardware.  Lucid has a unique driver which will interface Direct X to GPU vendor drivers, after the division of workload.  Information from games first gets passed to Hydra's software, which splits it into tasks.  The set of tasks is then set to Lucid's hardware, which splits the work up between up to 4 GPUs.  A typical task might be rendering a specific part of a scene, adding lighting, or other common graphical chores.  After the GPUs finish their respective parts, it sends them to one of the GPUs to coalesce into a final output.  The whole process is very fast.

According to the Lucid the system has "virtually no CPU overhead and no latency" when compared to single-card solutions.  The approach is very different from AMD/ATI and NVIDIA's work in that it actually intercepts Direct X calls before sending them to the GPU and intelligently splits scenes up, as opposed to "brute force" rendering them.

While the engine is capable of cruder split frame rendering, which it performs well, it really shines when it splits the scene up with this custom logic.  Individual components in a scene -- say part of the floor and windows -- are sent to one GPU while other parts -- say your character and the walls are sent to the other.  With virtually no additional overhead the entire scene is rendered nearly twice as fast.  Where SLI/CrossFire offer only 50-70 percent scaling at best, Lucid claims its solution is near 100 percent -- linear scaling.

One of the strongest points is that the engine is not reliant on specific graphics drivers.  Thus graphics cards and drivers can come and go, but the engine will still work. 

The hardware/software may find its way into graphics setups in two ways.  The first, it could be added to motherboards to allow improved multi-GPU and support for both AMD/ATI and NVIDIA.  Second, it could be deployed by card manufacturers on dual-GPU boards, such as the 4870 X2, in place of the standard PCIe bridge.

Unfortunately there is one key catch with current technologies.  Current operating systems like Windows Vista only support one graphics card driver simultaneously running.  So until Microsoft allows AMD/ATI and NVIDIA drivers to coexist, a dual system remains entirely impossible and out of Lucid's hands, short of hacking the OS.

Even if this capability is never supported, though, if Lucid can merely live up to its claims, it will be a groundbreaking development in the graphics industry.  Not only will it allow for repurposing of old graphics cards, but it will render NVIDIA's SLI chipsets and ATI's CrossFire connectors essentially obsolete.  Further, if offered at a reasonable price, it would be hard for motherboard makers to not put one of these on their board to offer users to choose between the two graphics giants.

CrossFire-SLI may be a bit in the future still, but Lucid is dreaming big, and NVIDIA and ATI/AMD better watch out.

"You can bet that Sony built a long-term business plan about being successful in Japan and that business plan is crumbling." -- Peter Moore, 24 hours before his Microsoft resignation

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