Today's Hard|Forum Post
Today's Hard|Forum Post

A New Dawn DX11 Demo Compared to the Old Dawn

It's A New Dawn! NVIDIA has brought one of our favorite demo characters back to our computer screens. Inside we will look at A New Dawn in comparison to the original 2002 Dawn in performance and image quality and see what current GPU technology allows in terms of the graphical experience.


NVIDIA has just recently released A New Dawn DX11 Demo for users of NVIDIA GPUs to download and experience. This will not run on AMD GPUs, even though it is a DX11 demo, it uses specific extensions only NVIDIA supports.

If you aren't familiar with the character of Dawn, we aren't surprised. It has was 2002 that Dawn was introduced. This is the first time that Dawn has been updated for modern hardware. A New Dawn is a complete graphics overhaul of the old Dawn, re-designing her to utilize the most modern features and graphical effects possible on current generation video cards, namely, the GeForce GTX 680. Let's run down what the original Dawn was about, and then what the new Dawn is all about.

Dawn (2002)

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In 2002 NVIDIA released the tech demo Dawn, also called Fairy, alongside the brand new GeForce FX series of video cards. You will recognize the GeForce FX series as the very controversial NV30 GPU. The GeForce FX was well known for its extremely loud "leaf blower" fan, and performance that was inconsistent. The NV30 was not one of NVIDIA's popular GPUs, in fact, the GeForce FX series marks a bit of embarrassment for NVIDIA. Nevertheless, the GeForce FX did bring with it technology that was a bit ahead of its time. The NV30 supported technology that was superior to the DirectX 9 set of features at the time. Unfortunately for it, there were never any games that exploited its expanded features. It was literally the closest to a unified architecture that we now enjoy with DirectX 10+ GPUs.

Dawn was released as a means to show off its advanced capabilities and show us what could be done with the technology. From the readme included with Dawn we will let it explain how it shows off those capabilities.

Welcome to our enchanted forest. A place where virtuality meets reality. This is the domain of the prettiest pixie to ever grace the computer screen. While her existence may only be virtual, the life-like effects made possible with GeForceFX will convince you that she is real. She is brought to life through the magic of complex vertex shaders that provide for both skeletal (body) animation, and blend shape (facial) animation. But, what truly sets her apart from those cyborg computer zombies that used to pass for living creatures is SKIN. Beautiful human skin. She is covered with an intricate skin shader that accounts for all the subtleties of human skin. This includes consideration of the oilyness of the skin surface, the amount of blood that runs just beneath the surface, and surface highlights as light hits her skin at glancing angles. In her enchanted world, it's unclear where fantasy ends and reality begins.

The technologies included in this original demo are as followed:

Vertex Shaders - Two key vertex shaders drive her motion. A branching skeletal shader where the body mesh is driven by several different combinations of internal bones. Also, a blend shape shader that deforms her face based on control parameters.

Skin Shader - This uses a complex combination of color maps, specular maps, and blood charateristic maps to produce very realistic skin. In addition, lighting subtleties are accomplished with a series of cube maps for diffuse specular and "highlight" skin lighting.

Wing Shader - A translucent shader is used for the wings. This modifies both the reflected color off the wings as well as the amount of light passing through the wings based of viewing and light angles.

A New Dawn (2012)

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Ten years later and NVIDIA has seen it fit to update A New Dawn to new DX11 technology. Not only that, NVIDIA is exploiting features of DX11 to bring Dawn to life like never before. She's more realistic than ever on the GeForce GTX 680, and we can certainly see how the new technology is improved over the last Dawn when you run this demo.

In A New Dawn, the demo starts not with the main character, but with a sweeping overview of a lush rainforest. As our character comes into view, we find her swinging on a vine in her new tree home. The tree is rendered to the finest level of detail using DirectX 11 tessellation. At its peak, over four million triangles are used to showcase Dawn's environment.

Dawn's skin has also received a complete overhaul. Human skin is one of the trickiest materials to simulate. Unlike a concrete object that only absorbs or transmits light, human skin is more akin to a block of jelly; light enters, jiggles around in multiple layers of skin and flesh, and exits in a new direction due to sub-surface scattering.

The original Dawn demo was the first to show a fully credible, 3D character in real time. The Nalu demo added detailed, physically simulated hair. The Adrianne Curry demo pushed the limits of realism in skin shading. A New Dawn demo is a synthesis of all of these demos, as well as over a decade of techniques and advancement made in the realm of realtime 3D graphics.

NVIDIA recommends GeForce GTX 690 or GeForce GTX 670 SLI for this demo. We will show you why, we will run it on a GTX 680 and 680 SLI.

Table below taken from this page for easy comparison of features, please read that whole page for more detail on the new Dawn demo.

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Test Setup

We are using our new Ivy Bridge platform setup as shown here. For drivers, we are using the latest NVIDIA Beta driver for these demos. Since we cannot run AMD video cards for comparison, we are simply using a GTX 680 and GTX 680 SLI. Unfortunately we did not have any GeForce FX 5800 Ultra video cards on hand for performance comparison.