Well, Nvidia helped Microsoft develop DirectX 8.0, and it appears the software giant needed a hand taking its games-oriented API to version 8.1 too. Certainly that's what ATI suggested today when it unveiled its Smartshader technology.
ATI's spiel is full of the usual 'making computer graphics look like movies' guff, and Smartshader is essentially just ATI's answer to Nvidia's nFiniteFX programmable graphics engine. It is expected to debut in the company's upcoming R200 chip, believed to be marketed as the Radeon 2.
Certainly almost all the benefits of Smartshader - as outlined by ATI - are already provided by the Nvidia technology, found in its GeForce 3 chip and the upcoming Xbox GPU from which it's derived. In short, ATI is playing catch-up here, despite the way ATI's blurb presents all this stuff as new.
Not that that matters much. The market is hardly flooded with games that take advantage of DirectX 8.0's programmability, leaving the GeForce 3's more advanced features distinctly under-utilised. The real advent of Direct X 8 will come when Xbox launches and software developers ship PC versions of Xbox titles. That's won't happen until the autumn, by which time ATI should be shipping its first DirectX 8 part, courtesy of Smartshader. Result: Nvidia may have got there first, but ATI has a (slightly) more advanced DirectX 8 GPU.
There are some improvements over Nvidia's nFiniteFX engine, such as boosting the number of textures that can be handled in a single pixel-shading pass to six from four, and increasing the number of shading instructions that can be applied to a pixel from 12 to 22. The instruction set has been simplified too, apparently.
However, it's telling that these enhancement only take DirectX to 8.1 not a full integer to 9.0.
Smartshader's features will also be accessible through OpenGL, thanks to a series of extensions to the spec. produced by ATI.
The R200 is due to ship later this summer, according to statements made by senior ATI staffers in the past. No reference to the R200 or to its launch window were made in the Smartshader announcement.
Oddly enough, it didn't mention Truform - the last technology ATI announced, a month or so back - either. Presumably, Truform, with its emphasis on vertex manipulation, form the basis for Smartshader's vertex shader engine. ®