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Commentary: 3D CAD on iPhone? You Bet!

Daniel Eran Dilger’s article this week in Roughly Drafted Magazine suggest more than just the power of games on the iPhone. Clearly with such hardware internals the iPhone is more than capable of handling CAD — even, and especially, 3D CAD

If you are in the world of CAD or 3D and you got a chance to see Apple’s presentation and introduction of the iPhone SDK (software development kit) then you might of had the same passing though I had when Sega demonstrated Monkey Ball on the iPhone — that it operated and acted much like a 3D “flythru” commonly used in architectural 3D modeling and rendering.

3D Navigation with Accelerometer

Before we touch on Daniel’s analysis, a key aspect of 3D CAD on the iPhone concerns the built-in accelerometer. A good 3D CAD application on the iPhone would utilize the built-in accelerometer to handle full X-Y-Z axis navigation rather than clutter the interface with two or three buttons that most 3D applications use to control 3D rotation, pan, tilt, move forward, move backward, et cetera. Although the iPhone’s applications involve a flexible “touch interface”, you simply wouldn’t want to “clutter up” that screen real estate with a dozen buttons — buttons which need to be a certain size for your fingers to operate well.

A Hardware “Super Power”

Daniel’s article on Roughly Drafted Magazine does an excellent job of pointing out the iPhone’s superior firepower compared to the latest generation mobile gaming platforms. If you have seen the powerful graphics on Sony’s PSP you know just how capable OpenGL ES actually is. And as Chris Bentley of AMD/ATi’s Mac graphics division noted in this article, in the mobile gaming market OpenGL ES is “everywhere.”

On the hardware side Sony’s 2004 model PSP contains a 333 MHz MIPS R4000 processor with built-in GPU and 2 MB of VRAM running at 166 MHz. And the main memory is at just 32 – 64 MB.

Apple’s iPhone by comparison has a Samsung manufactured ARM 1176 SoC processor likely running at 533 MHz and it utilizes a PowerVR MBX processor. Daniel’s article reminds folks thatPowerVR were competitors in the desktop GPU market prior to the rise of ATi and Nvidia.

Graphically, the use of PowerVR is interesting. According to a wikipedia article, PowerVR developed a rendering technique known as Tile Based Deferred Rendering (TBDR) which differs from traditional z buffer rendering in that rendering work is never done for geometry that is obscured by other geometry. Retentive Architosh readers will recall our discussion about an OpenGL feature called “occlusion checking” in this ArchiCAD 10 review which basically does the same thing.

The bottom line is that Apple’s iPhone is a hardware super power when it comes to performance in the mobile space, tapping the best technologies with the most forward looking positions in the market. ARM, OpenGL ES, PowerVR are key positives here. Combine that with Apple’s Core Animation and OpenAL audio (a 3D audio technology) and QuickTime-based media architecture — and of course the use of the accelerometer — and you have a great platform for mobile 3D applications in professional markets like CAD, mCAD, BIM and pro 3D.

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