There has been a lot of talk lately about the next generation of hardware and how we are going to render things. The primary topic seems to be "How are we going to render a lot more geometry than we can now?" There are two approaches that are getting a lot of attention. The first is subdivision surfaces with displacement maps and the second is voxel ray casting.
Here are some others that are getting a bit of attention.
Ray casting against triangles
Intel's ray tracer
Cuda ray tracer
View dependent progressive mesh on the GPU
Progressive Buffers is one of my favorite papers. It's one that I keep coming back to time and time again.
Who knows exactly what is going on in Otoy. It almost seems like they are being deliberately confusing. It's for a game engine, it's for movie CG, it's lightstage (which I thought was a non-commercial product), it's a server side renderer, it's a web 3d viewer / streaming video.
What I have gathered it generates an unstructured point cloud on the gpu and creates a point hierarchy. It uses this for ray tracing not just eye rays but shadows and reflections. The reflections are massively cached. It's not clear how. I can't figure out how this is working with full animations like they have in their videos. Either that would require regenerating the points, which makes ray casting into it kind of pointless, or it has to deal with holes. Whatever they are doing the results are very impressive.
Subdivision surfaces with displacement maps
This has a lot of powerful people behind it. Both nVidia and AMD are behind it along with DirectX 11 API support through the hull shader, tessellator, and domain shader. I'm not a big fan of this. First off, it's only really useful in data amplification not data reduction. For example our studio and many others are now using the subd cage for the in game models for our characters. That means the the lowest tessellation level the subd surface can get to, the subd cage, is the same poly count as our current near LOD character meshes. It makes subdivision surfaces not useful at all in LODing moderate distances. This can be reduced some but likely not by enough to solve the problem. It looks really complicated to implement and rife with problems. It requires artists input to create models that work well with it. The data imported from the modelling package can be specific to that package. It's hard to beat the generality of a triangle soup.
The plus side is there is no issue with multiple moving meshes or deforming. They are fully animatable. To allow good animation control the tessellation of the cage may need to be higher. In theory every piece of geometry in your current engine could be replaced with subd models with displacement maps and the rest of your pipeline would work exactly the same.
Check out some work in this direction from Michael Bunnell of Fantasy Lab:
GPU Gems 2 chapter
Voxel ray casting
This has been made popular by John Carmack who has described this as his planned approach for idTech6. Considering he's always at the head of the pack this should give it pretty strong backing. John refers to his implementation as a sparse voxel octree (SVO). The idea is to extend his current virtual texturing mip blocks to 3D with a "mip" hierarchy of voxels that will be stored as an octree. The way this is even remotely reasonable is that you only need to store the important data, no data in empty space. This is very different from most scientific and medical applications that require the whole data block. This structure is great for compression. Geometry compression now turns into image compression which is a well studied problem and effective. LODing works from the whole screen bing a single voxel to subpixel detail. To render it every screen pixel casts a ray into the octree until it hits a voxel the size of a pixel or smaller. This means that both rendering is reduced by LODing and memory is reduced. If you don't need the voxel data you don't need it in memory.
I like this approach because it gives one elegant way of handling textures, geometry, streaming, compression and LODing all in one system. There are no demands on the input data. Anything can be converted into voxels. Due to a streaming structure very similar to virtual texturing it allows unique geometry and unique texturing. This means there are no restrictions on the artists. There is little way an artist can impact performance or memory with assets they create. That puts the art and visuals in the artists hands and the technical decisions in the engineers hands.
There are some problems. Ray tracing has always been slow. Ray casting is a search where rasterization is binning. Binning is almost always faster than searching. In a highly parallel environment the synchronization required in binning may tip the scales in searching's favor. As triangles shrink the number of multiple triangles in one bin or bin misses also hurts the speed advantage. It has now been demonstrated to be fast enough to render on current hardware at 60fps. This should be enough proof to let this concern slide a bit. It does mean it will only be able to be rendered once. It's unlikely there will be power left to render a shadow map or ray trace to the light for that matter. My guess is John's intent is to have the lighting fully baked into the texture like how idTech5 works currently. This also cuts down on the required memory as only one color is required per voxel.
Memory is another possible problem. Jon Olick's demo of one character using a SVO required ~1gb of video memory which was not enough to completely hide paging. His plans to decrease this size was entropy encoding which means each child's data is based on its parents data. As far as I'm aware this is only going to work if you use a kd-tree restart traversal which is slower than the other alternatives. Otherwise he would need to evaluate the voxel data for the whole stack once he wishes to draw the pixel.
The most important problem is it doesn't work with dynamic meshes. The scheme I believe John Carmack is planning on using is a static world with baked lighting with all dynamic objects and characters using traditional triangle meshes. I expect this to work out well. The performance of this type of situation has been shown to be there so it's not too risky to pursue this direction. There is something about it that bugs me. You release the constraints of the environmental artists but leave the other artists with the same problems. If you handle texturing inherently with voxels does that mean he needs to keep around his virtual texturing for everything else? Treating the world and the dynamic objects in it separately has been required in the past with lightmaps and vertex lighting. To bring back this Hanna Barbara effect in a even more complicated way leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I'm really looking for a uniform solution for geometry and textures.
For more detailed information see Jon Olick's Siggraph presentation. He is a former employee of id. Also check out the interview that started this all off.
The brick based voxel implementations seem like a better solution to me than having the tree uniform. This means the leaves are a different type than the nodes. They consist of a fixed size brick of voxels. Being in a brick format has many advantages. It allows free filtering and hardware volume texture compression through DXT formats.
Check out these for brick approaches:
GPU ray casting of voxels