OTOY founder and CEO Jules Urbach has spent years perfecting what he describes as “a wand” that will break down the frictional barriers between having an idea and rendering it in real time in a 3D space. Today, the result is the razor’s edge of graphics tech, which can now be leveraged with Ethereum’s decentralized network of GPUs, creating a whole new paradigm for what is possible.
The History of OTOY
In 2004, Urbach was already an established video game creation prodigy with titles like Hell Cab, one of the first CD-ROM games, under his belt, as well as dozens of titles for Electronic Arts, Shockwave, Nickelodeon, and Disney. It was after these successes that The New York Times wrote a couple of articles about him that caught the attention of one of Hollywood’s most powerful executives. Ariel Emanuel told ETHNews, “The New York Times article on Jules came out after we had already met. But that same writer had previously written about virtual world currency exchanges, and looking into this is how I first heard about Jules and decided on a whim to go see him at his house.”
Emanuel had followed his instincts to the Urbach house. He’d read a book over a decade earlier, Life After Television by George Gilder, which described how the world would move away from traditional television networks because of the rise of digital media. This concept had captivated Emanuel’s imagination so much that he had quit his job and started his own business. With Life After Television ingrained into his psyche, Emanuel made the connection to what Jules Urbach was working on “right away.”
“I don’t even know the exact story of how that happened,” Urbach told ETHNews, “but that’s how Ari got wind of what I was doing. I had been planning that stuff forever. I was working on rendering and I was thinking about the ideas of economies and virtual economies. That is what sent Ari my way.”
Urbach showed Emmanuel how he had threaded the Windows operating system with a type of render that enabled 2D images to be taken from the internet and mapped to 3D images (for instance, a spaceship) on his computer’s desktop. “I was showing him the inside of a web page, how I could put a web page onto the Starship Enterprise. Being friends with Rod [Roddenberry] I had it on my desktop. I showed Ari how you could take the image out of the browser window and put it on the desktop and then you could put it back in. I basically showed him that the entire concept of Windows, Web pages, and Ads could all be mapped to 3D objects, and it could all be done spatially. And more importantly, that you can start to think of worlds, spatial worlds, as web pages and how you could build social layers around that. I always knew a social network was a huge factor in getting any of these things up to scale. At the time, there was no Facebook or Facebook was just started that year, so I had everything hooked up through AOL Instant Messenger (AIM).”
Urbach wasn’t using AIM to socialize like most people were. He had patched his gaming engine to the AIM network and created something of a philosopher’s stone for software, utilizing the linked machines to render graphics over the internet. “I remember I told Ari this, ‘I’ve got a couple of years of work to do.’ At the time, I was the only one coding everything and building everything ... everyone was saying none of this stuff would work. It was impossible to do streaming, it was impossible to do GPU ray tracing – artificial intelligence on a GPU was ridiculous.”
Emanuel reflected on how far we’ve come since that day: “Making things cheaper and faster on GPUs is now something everyone knows they need. Jules was the first to prove this was going to work, 11 years ago. People battled us along the way but they were wrong. There was only one Steve Jobs, and there’s only one Jules.”
The Future of OctaneRender
Cloud computing has been the backbone of OTOY’s product, OctaneRender. “We have a centralized rendering service,” Urbach told ETHNews. “I have everything that I dreamed of doing at scale as possible, it’s just not cheap enough and it’s also not big enough. The demand of what we could be rendering is higher than what all of the centralized cloud computing parameters have ... I’ve always assumed that the way to scale, and get people this unlimited rendering power, and drive this economy of rendering that I saw for the future, was to do it in a distributed way. When I first thought of this, I wasn’t thinking about cryptocurrencies ... The blockchain was always more interesting to me than the currencies because I was always concerned about centralization, about storing the state of the metaverse, and the web not being an ultimate validator of that. Skip ahead all the way to Ethereum today and now tokens being built on it and smart contracts to validate all this other work – it was just a very obvious time to do something like this and to make it real.”
OTOY is also experimenting with using GPU-based AI to enhance the rendering process. “The only way to really take rendering any further than what we’re doing is to have AI look at whatever is rendering on the network,” said Urbach. “We have enough sample renders from our community to have AI improve the rendering speed. I can’t imagine where that will go with scale and millions of GPUs. It’s definitely something where we start with photons bouncing around and generating a reality. Then we have AI that can learn from that and accelerate the process.”
Through OctaneRender, people will have the ability to create 3D graphics by allowing their mind’s eye to drive more of the development process, rather than be limited by technical friction. Urbach continued, “I think coding is one of those things that will eventually go away. You’ll be able to imagine algorithms and ideas, and an AI will be able to better translate that into real, functional code.” This could perhaps create an entirely new era of entertainment and media. By redefining creativity and utilizing AI, OctaneRender may be enhancing our human capacity to dream and imagine.
OctaneRender actually simulates real photons and gives near-perfect results, spectrally. The index of photon bounces, called OctaneBench, “measures millions of photon rays, and there is a certain complexity to how we put things through the benchmark. It gives you the power and efficiency of simulating light in a world rendered by Octane.”
Recently, OctaneRender was used to create the opening of HBO’s “Westworld” in somebody’s office – not in a render farm. “It’s now so simple to render quickly with a GPU,” Urbach said about the process. “People had previously waited forty hours to see what a render that was real looked like. Suddenly, here it was happening in real time, in their window while they’re editing a scene. It wasn’t just that things were rendering faster, it had transformed the human experience of authorship and art.”
Enter the Blockchain
The Ethereum blockchain will be used for completing and tracking state changes of shared 3D graphics with OctaneRender. Re-composition of images will utilize the blockchain’s time stamps, and the whole system will be available to artists who purchase work time with ERC20-compliant RNDR tokens. Until now, rendering had been done using software that made shortcuts to explain the physics of reality in a virtual environment.
Emanuel elaborated on the potential impact of cryptocurrencies in the film industry: “I think crowdfunding using blockchain-backed currency could work for some types of content. Kickstarter offers this kind of system, but it hasn't changed how the majority of studio movies are financed. If you consider RNDR as a way for crowdfunding CG, PIXAR-like movies, that is a straightforward first step. OTOY has given render credits to support small independent studio projects on its cloud service. RNDR allows anyone to do the same at an even larger scale. Part of the RNDR service is about scanning people, places, and objects - like what OTOY does with LightStage for us and the studios, or Facebook with their camera. If you add this as a tool, it will allow captured real-world content to be used and give you the same, for more than just animated movies.”
We will continue to see the evolution of art made real by advances in the technical space, such as with rendering. Inspired by the work venerated by Ariel Emanuel, Life After Television, Urbach recently wrote a Medium post called Life After Automation, in which he mused that even alongside the relentless forward march of automation:
"Our complete personal experience is a uniquely human metric by which we constantly measure qualia, social resonance and novel truths. No machine can ever do this more authentically and meaningfully than we do. In a decentralized, dematerialized and fully automated world, the flow and final evaluation of human value must never stop being a human responsibility.”