The way to home 3d

Preceding History

This is by no means a complete or a consistent list of major milestones along the way to PC's gaming 3d accelerators. Challenges of interactive computer visualization were underestimated and it took much longed time and effort to get our now ordinary gaming cards. Since the limitations were in first decades mostly on the hardware side, and my interest lies there as well, this article says little about software side.

At Work


The Whirlwind hall computer at MIT is the first machine to generate real-time graphics on CRT display. Initially the system could light 256 points. It's purpose demands development of better graphics terminals for real-time interaction and animation.

First video game is to be seen at the Canadian National Exhibition. Bertie the Brain was built by University of Toronto, but abandoned soon after that occassion, playing tic-tac-toe displayed on panels with lightbulbs behind.


First commercialy available computer is the Ferranti Mark 1 from Manchaster, UK. A custom NIMROD unit was assembled for two shows playing the game of Nim. Showing the game state by series of lights, this exhibit attracted more attention then any other.


The very first video game I know about- OXO aka Noughts and Crosses, was written by A.S. Douglas at Cambridge University. The tic-tac-toe game puts a player against one of kind Edsac computer, and is therefore rather unknown.


MIT's Lincoln Laboratory starts tests of first transistorized computer, the TX-0. It is a prototype to test various graphics applications.


Graphics system of TX-0 transforms computer usage- from batch processing to interactivity. Software for pattern recognition and on-line program debugging is in use.


Deployment of the TX-0 brought need to use scientific symbols. To enable some 200 keys input first graphical interactive text editor is developed.


As the first video game is usually considered Tennis For Two by William H. Donner. It was made for Model 30 analog computer. As a screen was used oscilloscope, on which electric signals were sending signals that would draw two lines for the field ground and net. Two players were pushing buttons to "hit" the ball.


MIT developed the first computer with interactive graphics. The TX-2 hall machine has a nine inch CRT and lightpen. The team behind the TX-2 is going to form the Digital Equipment Company.


After collaboration with General Motors, IBM produces the first commercially available Computer Aided Design program, known as DAC-1.


Another MIT student, Steve Russell, created the first video game for a CRT screen, Spacewar. It was written for world's first commercial interactive computer, DEC's PDP-1. Spacewar was an instant success and copies started flowing to other PDP-1 owners and eventually DEC even included it into bundled software as a test program. Try it.


Ivan Sutherland's work on TX-2 culminates with Sketchpad, first interactive (vector) graphics system with various input methods and data structures for replicating components.


Sketchpad is commercially available and new version enables display of 3d object in classic orthogonal views together with a scalable perspective view.


DEC developed Type 340 Precision Incremental CRT Display system. Control and data are stored in a word loaded to internal buffer within a couple of microseconds, offloading main computer from display control. The 340 automatized drawing of primitives such as characters and curved lines. Important new feature was subroutine support, making the 340 programmable. Despite the increased complexity, it did not yet occurred to the engineers that they are effectively developing a new kind of processor. But the realization will come with work on better subroutine control in following years.


IBM offers to public 2250 terminal for its computers. The CRT system can be upgraded with buffered display channel and character generator just like DEC hardware, but for it's 1024x1024 monochrome raster calculates position in 4kx4k grid for subpixel precision.


Team of Ivan Sutherland develope Head Mounted Display, ancestor of virtual reality head mounts. The project will expose complexities of 3d graphics and leads to first important optimization: clipping. Sutherland's team came up with algorithm eliminating parts outside the field of view.


University of Utah played a great role thanks to their computer graphics laboratory, with people like John Warnock (later founded Adobe, author of PostScript), and the image processing group led by Tom Stockham, were was Jim Clark, who later founded Silicon Graphics. Major advance in 3D computer graphics was created at UU by these early pioneers, the hidden-surface algorithms. In order to draw 3D shaded polygons on the screen, the computer must determine which surfaces are behind others from to the viewer's perspective (along "z" axis), and thus shouldn't be drawn. The first popular algorithm was scan line rendering, without need for additional memory as opposed to z-buffer.

In UK the University of Cambridge will contribute greatly. CADCentre was created to promote the technology to home industry. Dick Newell oversaw the creation of 3D process plant design. He will later commercialize the research in Cambridge Interactive Systems with Medusa 2D/3D CAD system.


Arthur Appel presents the first ray casting rendering algorithm. One ray per pixel is traced from the eye, finds the closest object blocking the path, thus determining visible objects in 3d scene. Materials can have different properties to choose shading of the object. Speed of ray casting is little affected by geometrical complexity.

Dr. David Evans and Dr. Ivan Sutherland are together founding own company. Unhappy with commercial products of the time, they set on development special graphics processors, The soon to be famous E&S will be first to build graphics computers, giving birth to the industry.


E&S begins to sell first Line Drawing Systems, capable of matrices multiplies for 3d transformations.

MAGI released SynthaVision, first commercially available solid modeler program. It used ray-tracing algorithm.


Sutherland's Sketchpad got its first commercial incarnation: affordable PDS-1. With vector display resolution of 1024x1024, it is going to serve 3d games as well.


While flat shading can make an object look as if it's solid, the sharp edges of the polygons can detract from the realism of the image. While one can create smaller polygons (which also means more polygons), this increases the complexity of the scene, which in turn slows down the performance of the computer rendering the scene. To solve this, Henri Gouraud presented a method for creating the appearance of a curved surface by interpolating the color across the polygon. This method of shading has since come to be known as Gouraud shading. It hardly takes any more computations than flat shading, yet provides a dramatic increase in rendering quality. However polygons remain obvious along the edges of the object.


First high resolution frame buffer is created for Xerox by Richard Shoup. It fueled the SuperPaint system with 311,040 kB of memory that allowed for 640x480x8 raster graphics. The memory chips were scattered across 16 boards, and data were continually read/written by shift register cascade. But ability to refresh such huge screen within a second was still major breakthrough in animation.


B. T. Phong publishes his dissertation about shading and reflections calculated with per pixel normal. Expanding on Gouraud shading, Phong's method provides much smoother surface at several times higher computing demand. His reflection technique leads to specular highlights- angle dependant intense light seen on shiny surfaces.


Evans & Sutherland released the first commercial framebuffer, 8k 36 bit words big and supporting double buffering. Eight bits were used for grayscale intensity, but soon three of those were combined for 24 bit (true color) framebuffer. The "Refresh Buffer" together with own Picture Processor for 3d high precision transformation, clipping, and rastering, propelled powerful Picture System. Demos and Whitney left E&S to join Triple I and form the Motion Picture Products group. They continued own frame buffer development, building one for thousand lines.

Ed Catmull received his Ph. D. after thesis covering Texture Mapping, Z-Buffer and curved surfaces rendering. Texture mapping brought computer graphics to a new level of realism. 2D images representing object's surface are applied onto a 3D object. This is still the most important technique of making 3d graphics look realistic.
The z-buffer aided the process of hidden surface removal by using zels which are similar to pixels but instead of recording the luminance of a specific point in an image, they record the depth of that point. The letter "z" comes from "z" axis, conventionally reflecting the depth. The z-buffer was then an area of memory devoted to storing the depth data per pixel.


Xerox'es computers are first to feature bit block transfer ability. This major performance advancement will be mightly push for fully bit mapped graphics and "blitter" hardware accelerators.

Mandelbrot followed up his paper with a book entitled "The Fractal Geometry of Nature." This showed how his fractal principles could be applied to computer imagery to create realistic simulations of natural phenomena such as mountains, coastlines, wood grain, etc.


The first major feature film to use 3D computer generated imagery is screened: Futureworld. Among the CGI content is Edwin Catmull's left hand, digitized in his 1971 experiment.


The first graphical standard is developed: The 3D Core Graphics System (a.k.a. Core). 25 experts of the ACM developed this "conceptual framework" and it became a foundation for many future development in the field of computer graphics.


James Blinn developed a new technique expanding on texture mapping: bump mapping. One does not have to just map the colors from a 2D image onto a 3D object, the image data can have other uses as well. The brightness of pixels from monochrome image were used to add new details to the surface. As pixels of bump map are more deviating from average gray, they will appear as bigger bumps or dents. When both a texture map and a bump map are applied at the same time, the result can be very convincing. Blinn described another useful technique that year, on surfaces that reflect their surroundings. By rendering six different views from the location of the object (top, bottom, front, back, left and right). Those views are then applied to the outside of the object in a way similar to standard texture mapping. The result is that an object appears to reflect its surroundings, hence the name environment mapping.


Apollo starts to sell first graphics workstation, that will begin long line of popular products. Using two Motorola 68000 and black and white graphics in relatively small case, workstations drives down the costs far below old big computers like VAX.

Disney turns to MAGI to provide CG for Tron movie. Synthavision will handle the challenges of fluid 3d animation in cinamatic quality.


Intergraph's terminals included a dedicated Graphics Processor for 3D rotations, surface shading, perspective calculations, and polygon processing. With a dedicated processor working in parallel with CPU, it was one of the first terminals able to transform simple 3d objects in real time, dynamic pan, and continuous zoom in or out.

SUN corporation is founded to build own graphics workstations. Sun-1 used a sophisticated CAD software powered by graphics controller with memory-mapped frame buffer for bit-mapped graphics at resolution of 1024x1024 pixels and accelerated raster operations.

Jim Clark and Marc Hannah developed the Geometry Engine. It is a 5 MFLOP VLSI chip performing beside others 4x4 matrix transformations, window clipping, perspective and orthographic projections.

Bleeding edge 3d graphics of 80's was reserved for flight simulators, such as CT-5 with a graphics system by Evans & Sutherland. First general purpose CT machine leaps over abilities of the previous image generators. It splits the picture into tiles processed separately, removing parts hidden by closer objects. Multiple surfaces can be color blended for transparency effects, and 3d texture mapping was soon added as well.


Another new corporation, Silicon Graphics Inc., rolled out its first system, the IRIS 1000 graphics terminal. The company focused its resources on creating the highest performance graphics computers available. Iris line offered built-in 3D graphics capabilities, being first to implement Geometry System of Jim Clark.

Computervision also boosts it's CAD performance, their CGP200 enables raster graphics accelerated by dedicated co-processor board known as the Graphics Processing Unit.


IBM expands possibilities of PC by PGC adapter, carrying own CPU, 68kB of ROM, 4 bit DAC and 320kB of RAM. The massive triple PCB card supported hardware rotation and clipping, but did not find much support besides Autocad.

Pixar shows a version of their first film: The Adventures of Andre & Wally B. Groundbreaking technology allows for complex flexible characters, hand-painted textures, and motion blur.


SGI offers a second line of IRIS workstations, pushing 80,000 transistors Geometry Engines to 8 MHz for peak 44 megapixels fillrate. Apollo has a new graphics system as well, with 25 megapixel triangle fillrate. Hardware acceleration can now perform real time rendering resolutions above one megapixel, but is still limited to transformations and rasterization of flat shaded polygons. Lighting, smooth shading and depth buffering done in software carry large penalty.

AutoCAD, the first program of the kind for microcomputers, now supports 3d visualization.


Dedicated 3d coprocessors are spreading. Texas Instruments TMS34010 is first truly programmable graphics chip, albeit still without floating point operations.

IBM tries a CAD comeback with "RT PC", RISC machine with optional Floating Point Accelerator. High resolution video card for first time employed dual ported VRAM memory. But even then 3d graphics performance is behind competition.

Silicon Graphics takes on hardware implementation of smooth shading and depth buffering with 4DG, though the speed is not yet practical.

Intel came out with the 82786 coprocessor, integrating unit supporting rich set of drawing operations, display processor that performs video generation and windowing operations, memory controller and bus logic. The architecture is also flexible, because the graphics memory is directly accessible by the CPU.


IBM RT line offers new models with built-in Motorola 68881 FPU (192 kFlops). It's hardware implementation of transcendental functions exceeds the graphics speed of the original Floating Point Accelerator. But what's more, IBM offered own Advanced FPA card with even higher performance.

Pixar completes Red's dream, a cinematic breakthrough in atmospheric effects and complex lighting models.


Loren Carpenter introduced the alpha channel to the frame buffer, allowing images to be efficiently composited and blended, even with antialiasing.

Evans & Sutherland provides powerful 3d accelerator for VAXstation 8000. Project Shadowfax introduces hardware anti-aliased rendering in 16 chips, effectively multiplying resolution.

IBM developed new RT Systems with Enhanced AFPA. Peak double precision speed reaches 2 MFlops, still only matching more established competition. Apollo and SGI are bringing true second generation accelerators, quickly processing lighting from multiple sources, smooth shading, depth buffering with rejection of hidden surfaces. Also memory capacity increased to allow high resolution double buffering.

Robert L. Cook and Loren Carpenter after several years finished Reyes- Pixar's software suite that in anticipation of further rapid development can be called an API. It sets many standards for describing 3D scenes featuring bump, environmental and displacement maps, shadows, refraction and antialiasing techniques. The term shader is used for creating procedural textures and complex color programs.


Silicon Graphics, assisted by Autodesk and VPL, shows new technology coined as Virtual Reality. Computers have become strong enough to generate a 3D environment that allows real time interaction with users.

SGI, HP and Apollo lead graphics workstations to hardware texture mapping and line antialiasing. Next year HP will buy Apollo and their graphics products will be fused into one line.

Intel releases the i860 CPU with unique features, especially high-speed floating point operations. It's 64-bit FPU contains adders, multipliers and integer "graphics processor". Instructions could act on data sizes up to 128-bit at rate 1 FMAD per clock.

IBM is coming back to mainframe rendering with a monster, launching new "6090" 1280x1024 display system. Ten floating-point graphics processors could transform one million vectors per second, or display true color shaded images at 40 million pixels per second. Shading was produced by an optional processor that supported multiple light sources and depth-cueing. The 6090 was one of the first commercial devices that could rotate shaded images in real time. IBM also introduced new channel control units that could handle up to 192 displays.


AutoDesk shipped their first 3d animation product, 3D Studio. Its Heidi API will allow for hardware acceleration.

Evans & Sutherland abandons supercomputer plans and instead starts own workstations. 3D accelerator of ESV line is feature wise similar to Shadowfax, but faster and lot more integrated with only four pixel processors fed by many-DSP geometry processor. On a true color 1280x1024 double-buffered display with 24 bit z-buffer the ESV can render up to 100,000 Gauroud shaded polygons.

After years of research US Military starts to use SIMNET for tank combat visualization. Binary Space Partitioning was the technique of choice for military simulations, but falling memory prices allowed SIMNET to use Z-buffer 3d graphics to enable on-ground point of view and large numbers of moving vehicles.


First 3d accelerator card for IBM Personal Computers is ready: IrisVision. Originating from Personal Iris, the card featured SGI's fifth generation Geometry Engine capable of 24 bit color rendering and optionally also 24 bit Z-buffering.

Same year SGI finishes ELAN 3d accelerator. New workstations now offer performance of 180K Z-buffered, lit, Gouraud-shaded triangles per second, and possibly even 1280x1024 true color mode. ELAN was comprised of five daughterboards for different subsystems: the Command Engine, Geometry Subsystem, Raster Engine, framebuffer and Display Subsystem.

IBM's graphics workstations made a massive performance jump with RS/6000 line, now offering GT4 family of 3D accelerators based on TI's TMS320C30 DSPs. The most powerful option made of GT4x and two ramdac boards offers double buffered 1280x1024 speed of 80,000 Gouraud shaded polygons in 24 bit color and depth precision. Floating point performance was the main advantage of new Power(PC) line of CPUs. Stand-alone Power Visualization System achieved 2,5 GFLOPS rate.


SGI finalizes OpenGL- first open standard 3d API, an evolution of proprietary IRIS GL API. As 3d hardware expands, need for a unified way of programming is increasing. The first members of Architecture Review Board are Compaq, DEC, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and of course SGI.


Sun offers own 3d accelerator for SPARCstation ZX. It uses 11 ASICs of three types: pipeline control featuring triangle setup, four 150 MFlops chips for coordinates transformation and lighting, and five rendering chips rejecting hidden pixels. The design had in mind newly appearing bottleneck of 3d graphics: memory bandwidth.

Third generation of 3d acceleration was mostly defined by RealityEngine of Silicon Graphics. The first Onyx visualization system is full of components for hardware accelerated graphics pipeline. The feature set includes perspectively correct trilineary mip-mapped texturing, antialising, sub pixel precision, 32 bit z-buffer and up to 48 bit color precision. Even if SGI's future looks bright number of engineers are leaving and starting own companies targeting consumer markets.


Industrial Light & Magic brought dinosaurs to life for the movie Jurassic Park, animating herds of dinosaurs upon live-action backgrounds using SGI's Crimson hardware.


Pixar released the first fully 3D animated movie, Toy Story with big critical acclaim. SunSPARC workstations were used to perform 0.5 million arithmetic operations per average pixel.

3Dlabs finishes their complete 3d pipeline implementation in a single chip. The 300SX based cards will dramatically decrease cost of 3d workstations.

notable sources:
First-Hand:The Development of Pong: Early Days of Atari and the Video Game Industry
Theaters of War: The Military Entertainment Complex
Funding a Revolution: Government Support for Computing Research
RS/6000 Graphics Handbook
On the Design of Display Processors (Myer-Sutherland)
RealityEngine Graphics (Kurt Akeley)

At Home


Thomas T Goldsmith Jr patented a WW2 radars inspired simulation. Since it was all about firing missiles at a targets, it was a game. An overlay was used to display static objects, an oscilloscope was drawing trajectory adjusted by user. Explosion was simulated by overloading the input signal. Only one prototype of "Amusement device" was built.


Edmund Berkeley presents first personal computer: Simon. It's relays perform four logical operations on two bits of data, output is signaled by five lamps. Enough for Berkeley to predict future adoption of home computers.


MIT Lincoln Laboratory demonstrates the 12-bit LINC computer. If you don't mind size of a fridge and price even bigger, it can be considered first personal computer. One of its biggest innovations is fast interaction thanks to GUI on a 256 x 256 CRT display. User can change variables on screen by manipulating four knobs- input system working quite similarly to mouse.


The LINC leaves laboratories and is now commercially manufactured.


Italian company Olivetti is first to sell (somewhat portable) personal computer. Their Programma 101, at almost the size of a typewriter, was successful and influential. But lacked few things to be more user friendly, including video output.


Given how expensive computers and their displays were, it is no wonder the actual home gaming market was created by a man coming from military/TV technology sector. Ralph Baer with co-worker Bill Harrison created a video game named Chase, the first to display on a standard television set.


HP was among those looking closely at Programma, and expanded on the concept by 9100A desktop calculator. It was actually a full blown computer in disguise, and featured small CRT read-out.

Team of Ralph Baer constructed "Brown Box" prototype gaming device, including light gun control. Integrated circuits at the time are too expensive, so it uses discrete components. But it will take long time to find a partner to sell such device.


DEC starts selling 16 bit PDP-11 minicomputer. Initial price of 20k USD, easy expandibility and modding makes it a good candidate for arcade cabinet platform.


Arcade video gaming is born, first coin-operated game console is installed at Stanford University. Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck used a low-end DEC PDP-11/20 and an electrostatic display to commercialize a version of Spacewars. The "Galaxy Game" became a hit among the student community.


Independently Nolan Bushnell creates own circuitry for Spacewar clone arcade cabinet. "Computer Space" is first commercially sold video game, but did not become popular.

Ralph Baer eventually found a partner in Magnavox, and after mere few years, the logical design of some 75 transistors and diodes shipped as such in 1972. Graphics were severely limited, Odyssey could draw on TV three moving elements and vertical lines of single color. All other visual details were provided by screen overlays. Magnavox Odyssey was the first home game console, without a CPU and RAM. Anyway, with more than 300,000 pieces sold it was a good start. The system offered several games via "cartridges", but their functionality was very different. Inside were no components, in essence they only served as jumper sets rewiring the internal diode logic circuits to move/hide the vertical line, and to determine what happens upon collision of graphic objects: bouncing or erasing.


Ralph Baer designed several advanced cartridges equipped with additional active components expanding features of the Odyssey, such as sound and moving vertical lines. But Magnavox was not interested.

Xerox created Alto, first modern computer in most ways. It features 606x808 monochrome bit-mapped graphics and mouse input to interact with icons and menus just like we do today.

The first complete computer built around CPU is introduced: Micral. It was based on the 0.5 MHz i8008 and at the time "complete" did not include video output.


Tomohiro Nishikado's Speed Race is released at arcades. The game was first to use scrolling graphics, where the sprites moved along a vertical scrolling overhead track.

Vector graphics allowed wireframe 3d gaming very early. Spasism used them to simulate flight in space.

Another big vector title is Maze War, a progenitor of a first-person multiplayer shooter.


After several arcade hits Atari brings Pong game home, integrating arcade discrete logic hardware into own 3.58 MHz ASIC. Good cheap clone of Odyssey's game penetrates homes in large numbers. Both Magnavox and Atari were updating their products with more game options and colors.

Nishikado's Gun Fight is running on first arcade cabinets with microprocessor.

Computer hobbyists Adams brothers can claim many firsts. Year before Richard Adams made the first 16 bit home computer, based on National Semiconductor IMP16 CPU. Eric Adams wrote software to help program the computer and finally Scott Adams designed the character based graphics game that appears to be first of its kind on home computers.

IBM started selling 5100 Portable Computer, a machine near the size of typewriter with integrated 5" CRT displaying 16 lines of 64 characters.


A new type of video game console arrives promising much greater variety. The Channel F electronics were designed by Jerry Lawson using the Fairchild F8 8-bit 1.8 MHz CPU and 64 bytes of RAM. Channel F should have demonstrated advantages of F8, a CPU Fairchild put all hopes into. The F8 is very complex for its time, and because of high pin count had to be fabricated as a pair of chips. Thanks to 2kB video RAM resolution is 128x64 pixels. Four out of eight colors can be displayed per line. Since the system used cartridges with memory for game data, it offered a large variety of games. Some 30 years later even homebrew Pacman appeared.


The year starts with Commodore introducing the PET with 12 inches big CRT display, but limited to monochrome hard coded characters. Tandy TRS-80 with it's 1kB video memory offered at least text semigraphics. But Wozniak and Jobs after leaving Atari had a more ambitious vision of home computer. Apple II featuring color graphics will steal the show. Quickly growing userbase inevitably produces many games.

Atari delivers own cartridge console- the VCS 2600. Its graphical system is based around Jay Miner's Television Interface Adapter chip. No video memory is used because the TIA, running at triple frequency of the CPU, is programmed for each line while drawing. It supported five sprites and background graphics differentiated by four colors picked from a palette of 128. Cheaper 6507 1.2 MHz CPU did not support interrupts and rendering had to be done in fixed amount of cycles. While the VCS was cheap console, it was very challenging to program for. Nevertheless, developers were getting more and more inventive with VCS programming as years of its long life time were passing. The library boomed with side scrollers, adventures and other more complex game types beyond original ambitions of mere top-down view tennis and shooters. The Atari brand became synonymous with video games and the TIA architecture continued its evolution for following Atari products.


Taito released one of the most influential games: Space Invaders by Nishikado. The development was particularly difficult, because Japan at the time was not yet blessed by microcomputers with proper programming environment. To meet the needed performance Nishikado picked Intel 8080 CPU and built own computer around it. Thanks to inspiring graphics and gameplay of Space Invaders, the arcade industry got over Pong overdose.

Magnavox releases Odyssey 2, a new generation console that can take on the Atari VCS. Intel supplied CPU as well as custom video chip for 160x200 resolution. There were 128 bytes of RAM shared for audio and video. Only 16 fixed colors were available, out of which sprites could use 8. Second Odyssey could however move 12 additional sprites, but their shape has to be selected out of 64 options built into ROM.


Atari starts it's line of home computers. The graphics were drawn by new Television Interface Adapter with better sprite support and further enhanced by ANTIC chip with own instruction set to process display lists. Thus the machines were game friendly and often used merely as a home console.

Arcades got probably first 3d first person shooter: the Tail Gunner by Vectorbeam with wireframe targets.


Atari unleashes hot new arcade game: Battlezone. It used wireframe vector graphics to nicely emulate 3d space. Since the player actually used viewing goggles it is also often considered a first virtual reality game. Try it.

Mattel releases their own take on video console: Intellivision, first to use 16 bit CPU. With 0,5 kB of video ram allowing 160x96x4 resolution and eight sprites of variable size, it easily beats visuals of older game systems.

And Radio Shack adds Color Computer to their line up. Version with 16kB of RAM will be few years later enough for first person game Phantom Slayer.


IBM introduces it's PC, that will soon become baseline for home computers. Big Blue also offered optional Color Graphics Adapter for the machine. Built around controller by Motorola, CGA featured 16kB RAM for resolutions up to 640x200. 16 colors were available in text mode, or four colors out of the palette of 16 in 320x200 simultaneously. However hacks appeared to alleviate these limitations.


Commodore, now owner of MOS, releases it's C64 "affordable to everyone" home computer. It will dominate the market for few years and accommodate large library of games. Graphics were handled by VIC-II chip, designed with games in mind. It used 16 kB address space for graphic objects, resolutions up to 320x200 and up to 16 colors. 8 sprites per scanline were supported and scrolling functions were accelerated as well.

In the UK Sinclair starts selling ZX Spectrum. It used Z80 CPU and had a unique graphics system designed by Altwasser. Palette was made out of 15 shades: seven colors at two levels of brightness each, and black. Color is stored separate from the pixel bitmap in a low resolution, 32x24 grid overlay, corresponding to the character blocks. In screen resolution of 256x192 all pixels of an 8x8 character block share one foreground and one background color. Inferior to C64 graphics, but conserved lot of memory.

Texas Instrument's TMS9918 Video Display Controller enables more powerful graphics for home systems such as Colecovision. It has own interface to 16 kB of separate RAM, handles 32 sprites of 8x8/16x16 pixels, albeit monochrome and only four can be used per line. Color palette has 15 choices, 16th bit is used as transparency switch.

And finally Vectrex, the only home computer with vector graphics. It could render wireframe 3d graphics, but is also notable for first usage of stereoscopic 3d.

Arcades gamers got first taste of sprite scaling in Namco's Pole Position. The system realized it with multiple Zilog CPUs, but sprite scaling become such esential feature to emulate movement in 3d space that it led to development of specific hardware implementation.


Atari releases version of Battlezone for the 2600, Activision soon follows with Robot Tank, bringing pseudo 3d games to homes. Even more impressive was Atari's Wayout game for 8 bit computers, featuring free-to-look-around 3d mazes.

Atari did not stop pushing the frontier in arcades. Star Wars delivered thrilling colored vector 3D graphics rendition of attack on Death Star, and Atari was also first to use flat shaded polygonal 3d graphics in the game "I, Robot".


Apple released the Macintosh. It was the first personal computer using graphical user interface. The Mac with high resolution monochrome screen and a mouse for comfortable GUI control will host many interesting graphics software.

Lucasfilm Games kicks off their library with very interesting 3d game Rescue from Fractalus. Fractal technology defined detailed mountain shapes to fly between on 8-bit hardware.

British home computers BBC and Electron are first to run Elite, coded in 6502 assembly. The game will popularize wire-frame 3D graphics with hidden line removal and will be ported to almost every possible platform.


Nintendo unleashes NES worldwide, the console that restored faith in video game industry. All the graphics are stored within 16kb memory of the Picture Processing Unit. Half of the capacity is for "Pattern Tables" and usually split between background and sprites. Both kinds of are tiled into 8x8 pixel squares, but with only half of color data. Both background and sprites has own 16 colors, displayable at once since each pixel is 4 bits lookup from adjustable color palette of 256 values. Fades, flashing, or transparency are realized by the palette. The pattern table contains the low two bits, and the upper two either come from the attribute table (for the background) or from sprite ram. Further graphics data can come from game cartridges. The sprite ram contains position, two color bits, pattern number, flipping and priority flags of 64 sprites. The second area of PPU memory is known as "Name Tables." There are usually two, but can be mirrored into four. Each is 960 bytes, to handle 32x30 tiles for a background of 256x240 pixels.

Commodore launched the new Amiga personal computer line. It's custom chipset is capable of full-screen animated graphics with up to 4096 colors and bit block transfers. Amiga is considered to be first computer with fully accelerated graphics and became popular game platform.

Sega releases Master System, starts to be main competitor of Nintendo. It's Video Display Processor is based on TMS9918, matching NES in performance.

Sega does not looses any bit of arcades influence however. Their new hardware supports hardware sprite zooming and translucent shadows. Space Harrier or later Outrun took advantage of it. Sprite scaling will become essential for simulation of movement in three dimensions.


Sega tries to enhance experience of Master System with 3d stereoscopic glasses, but with little success.

Home computers are braced with 3d wireframe games like Starglider. Interesting entry is Geoff Crammond's first game The Sentinel. It renders real time polygonal-like graphics from static point of view because of scrolling through precomputed vector images.

Incentive Software finishes Freescape engine, perhaps the first 3d game engine. Due to constraints of home computers of the time, the 3d world has many limitations. Incentive is going to create several filled polygons games using the continually evolving Freescape.


IBM introduced the Video Graphics Array, a single chip graphics implementation. It features smooth scrolling and ramdac with color lookup table, supporting 256 color display from a 18 bit (six per color) palette. First specification had 256 kB of memory and peak fillrate around 30 MPixel/sec.

IBM pushed their new PS/2 even further with 8514/A graphics adapter. It allowed software to off-load common, but back then demanding, 2D operations: lines, color-fill, bitblt and raster operations.

Interesting new arcade hardware appears, it is System 2 from Namco and can rotate sprites at large. Calculating transformations such as rotation of a plane puts 2d graphics another step closer to 3d illusion, as games like Final Lap proved.


After years of lonely development work of David A. Smith is over. Ground braking game The Colony is shipping, inviting Mac users to real-time rendered, free to roam world, filled with 3d objects. Visibility is determined by ray casting, algorithm that many upcoming 2.5 titles will use.

Sega takes the gaming spotlight with Mega Drive/ Genesis, first popular fully 16 bit console. Graphics chip is further evolved VDP, supporting 512 colors, 800 sprites and two background planes for fast scrolling.

Realtime Games releases praised Carrier Command for pretty much all modern home computers. It offered filled vector graphics with shading by raster patterns. Dynamix introduces similar engine with Abrams Battle Tank and goes on to produce many more games.

Namco demonstrates their edge with first 3d polygonal racing game: Winning Run. It runs on new System 21 "Polygonizer" hardware. One of the boards can be considered first 3d accelerator of video game industry. It was build around five TI TMS320C25 DSP chips (12,5 MIPS each) and dual ported RAM.


Gamers in arcades are impressed by Hard Drivin's usage of polygonal graphics, enabled by twin TMS34010 chips. But it is going to be one of the last hits of Atari. PC is already getting many games with similar visuals, e.g. Vette! was a precursor to now popular 3d open world driving games.


Microsoft shipped Windows 3.0 - first popular GUI OS superstructure for IBM PC compatible computers. It will lay the foundation for a growth in multimedia on PC.

Origin releases Wing Commander, praised for sophisticated 3D engine.


VGA possibilities are expanded by Edsun's Continuous Edge DAC, which enabled almost true color precision and featured hardware-assisted spatial antialiasing for line and vector draw operations.

S3 Graphics offers their pioneer product: the first single chip SVGA integrating GUI accelerator. S3 is going to push prices further down by leading integration of consumer graphics.


PC is getting used to raycasting based, texture mapped 2.5D games, most notably Ultima Underworld and Wolfenstein 3D.

Arcades are blessed with first 60 frames per second 3d graphics. Sega Model 1 hardware featuring Fujitsu's TGP MB86233 FPU with enhanced operation for 3d graphics powered flat shaded Virtua Racing.


First Person Shooter is a new genre in high demand, thanks to Id Software's pseudo-3d, richly texture mapped levels of Doom.

Argonaut and Nintendo jointly developed Star Fox for SNES, suddenly enabling Gouraud shaded 3d polygonal graphics. Inside the cartridge is Super FX chip, the first 3D graphics accelerator in a consumer product. It was a 16-bit RISC processor, at first 10,5 MHz with 32 kB SRAM, capable of real time rendering scenes with hundreds of Gouraud shaded polygons to a frame buffer in the RAM that is later sent to SNES for display. The chip can calculate 3D rotations, scaling and stretching of sprites in 3D backgrounds, parallax layers in 2D, and can do a basic form of texture mapping for polygonal models when rendering.

3DO launches first console ready for 3d gaming. It used two special chips for fixed-point matrix calculations and quadrilateral texturing. Internal 320x240/384x288 resolution was interpolated into four times higher mode.

Atari tries to turn the tides with Jaguar console. Paper specification is impressive, but Jaguar's graphics chip is a mere RISC with extended instructions for 3d calculations. Texture mapped games did not ran fast enough.

Thus the best 3d show will still happen in arcades. Namco got the mighty Evans and Sutherland to provide 3d accelerator for System 22. Ridge Racer games made good use of the TR3: high screen and texture resolution, high polygon counts, shading and transparency effects. Similarly Sega employed several Fujitsu's TGPs in Model 2 arcade machines and new rasterizer from Martin Marietta. Even military sector was interested in videogame industry. Flagship of Model 2 was Daytona USA, the most popular arcade game of all time.


Some big names are about to leave. Commodore went bankrupt, shelving among other projects 64 bit 3d texture mapping accelerator. Atari is going to quit hardware development as well.

Nintendo teams up with SGI to develope next generation 3d console- the Ultra64 hardware engine.

Matrox is first to offer hardware accelerated 3d gaming on PC, by offering Impression Plus card with games bundle. This single chip accelerator integrates 3d engine claiming performance of up to 150,000 Gouraud shaded, depth buffered polygons. However 3d games without texture maps did not became popular.


Sony's Playstation and Sega's Saturn are released globally. Playstation's CPU featured 3d transformations unit, which together with graphics chip allowed for real world true color performance of 180,000 textured and lighted polygons/sec. The console is considered to be the first one with "good enough" 3d graphics and gained large popularity. The Saturn on the other hand, harder to program for and using quadrilaterals, was another disappointment for Sega.

On the PC Matrox and Number Nine still offer only Gouraud shading 3d accelerators. Semiconductor manufacturing has reached the point when one million transistor ASICs became affordable, and that was the treshold for consumer market real-time texturing. By the end of the year PC receives first texture mapping 3d hardware accelerators. Add-on cards from 3Dlabs and Yamaha were just as unsuccessful as complete multimedia solution by Nvidia, which made wrong bet on soon to be forgotten quad primitives. But next year will finally bring the breakthrough and PC gets wide choice of accelerators, from "freeD" to high-end that will decimate graphics workstation market.