Released last week, the Caustic Series2 accelerator boards are a pair of ray tracing accelerator PC boards that use Imagination Technologies’ ray tracing technologies to bring us the world’s first chipset dedicated to high performance, fully interactive ray tracing in a workstation environment. I had the opportunity to sit down with VFX madman and Caustic user Nick Nakadate in his office at Portland, Oregon’s Animation Dynamics (ADi) to talk shop about how this product has improved his workflow and how it might help industrial designers and engineers in their workflows.

The Caustic Series2 Ray Tracing Acceleration Boards

While some of you may have used a plugin of some sort in the past from Imagination’s Caustic Visualizer family, the Caustic R2100 and R2500 boards include 4 Gigabytes and 16 Gigabytes of memory, which are used to store scene geometry and the ray tracing acceleration structure, effectively hyper-accelerating the existing raytracing plugins via Imagination’s OpenRL API. Unlike most GPU solutions, shading is performed by the CPU. Shader materials like texture maps are stored in memory on the workstation, freeing up the ray tracing hardware to store very large models – often a requirement for applications in CAD or film and post production.

Here Nick gives us an example of working with the existing Caustic plugin as-is with a 1.5 million polygon model without the card (which would add 2x to 3x the speed) for a simple comparison benchmark:

“In the video, there is a 1.5 million polygon camera model with mental ray arch and design materials, all running with the Caustic Visualizer (no Caustic card acceleration, which would provide a minimum 2x-3x speed increase). All materials are using true reflection (glossy in most cases). The scene is lit with an HDR environment. 3ds max modifiers, materials, lights, and animation are all editable. Depth of field in the camera is also usable, and is so fast the spinner can be dragged to find the desired focal point. The Caustic Visualizer can handle upwards of 120 million polygons, and textures are limited to the memory of the user’s workstation. The second segment of the video shows the camera cloned (over 9 million polygons).”

-Nick Nakadate

Nick’s large monitor provided me the opportunity to fall into his scene as he scanned around the HDR environment photo-realistically in real time. What would normally be a fuzzy, pixelated mess was crystal-clear and amazing to watch. Perhaps the most thrilling part was when he cloned the 1.5 million poly camera, exploded the resulting two to show their internal parts, then turned on depth of field and was still able to seamlessly pan around the scene as if the final, perfectly-rendered models were right in front of me.

What are the most comparable existing products on the market?
The closest product on the market that I know of is NVIDIA hardware (GPUs). I think it was calculated that one would need three of the NVIDIA Tesla cards to meet the performance of the Caustic R2500 card. The Tesla cards are much more expensive than the $1,495 Caustic R2500. The Visualizer seems to clean up images much faster than other hardware or software solutions, and live edting of the 3D scene is not possible in many of the other solutions.

How has working with this product improved your workflow?
My workflow has gained much more speed and allowed me more time to polish the results. I also am able to see lighting and material solutions that I might not otherwise arrive at due to the flexibility and speed of the Caustic Visualizer; I can see a scene from different angles and with different light rigs as I work on the model and materials–this lets me pick the best possible, and in some cases, more artistic, image in a very short amount of time.

How might this product help industrial designers and engineers?
I think industrial designers and engineers will be able to evaluate a 3D design as they design it with the Caustic Visualizer constantly rendering a view. This will save time identifying/avoiding illegal/bad model surfaces, and get more immediate feedback on what they are drawing. They will also get the invaluable speed increase that allows for interactive material and lighting polishing–it will really up their presentation quality and speed to reach a final image.


“We believe Caustic’s photorealistic ray tracing acceleration technology will change the way artists design in the future, which is why we chose to integrate the viewport directly into Rhino 5 as Neon. This technology combined with one of the Caustic Series2 ray tracing acceleration cards enables designers to create content within an interactive, fully ray traced viewport, complete with accurate lighting, shadows and reflections. By providing users with high-quality visual feedback from the earliest stages of modelling, potential issues can be identified and resolved much earlier in the design cycle.”

-Bob Mcneel, Founder of Rhino


“With the Caustic Visualizer and hardware cards this is the first time I have been able to model and ray trace simultaneously…I can see true refractions and reflections as I design. The quality, speed and fidelity really blow me away and frees us up to iterate at will, making product design perfectly interactive.”

-Max Sims, president of Technolution


R2100 ($795):

    · Up to 50 million incoherent rays per second
    · Target workstation: Single CPU
    · Bus: PCIe x8 Gen 2.0 – single height, half length
    · Power: 30 Watts maximum, bus powered (no PCIe external power required)
    · OS Support: Windows 7 and Vista (32-bit and 64-bit)
    · On-board memory: 4 Gbytes of scene geometry (up to 60 million triangles)
    · System memory: same requirements as 3D application (e.g., Maya). For optimal performance all memory channels should be fully populated
    · Ray-tracing hardware: one Caustic RTU (ray-tracing unit) chip

R2500 ($1495):

    · Up to 100 million incoherent rays per second
    · Target workstation: Dual CPU
    · Bus: PCIe x16 Gen 2.0 – single height, full length
    · Power: 65 Watts maximum, bus powered (no PCIe external power required)
    · OS Support: Windows 7 and Vista (32-bit and 64-bit)
    · On-board memory: 16 Gbytes of scene geometry (up to 120 million triangles)
    · System memory: same requirements as 3D application (e.g., Maya). For optimal performance all memory channels should be fully populated
    · Ray-tracing hardware: two Caustic RTU (ray-tracing unit) chips

For more info on the boards head over to the Caustic Series2 site.

Nick’s diverse background includes lighting and rendering, particle effects, compositing, 3D modeling and technical animation. Key experiences include feature film projects such as Superman Returns, Sin City, Ironman, and The Day after Tomorrow. He has also worked on numerous TV and web spots. He also has seven years experience as an architectural designer.


Simon is a Brooklyn-based industrial designer and Managing Editor of EVD Media. When he finds the time to design, his focus is on helping startups develop branding and design solutions to realize their product design vision. In addition to his work at Nike and various other clients, he is the main reason anything gets done at EvD Media. He once wrestled an Alaskan alligator buzzard to the ground with his bare hands… to rescue Josh.