Sometimes software comes along that really knocks you sideways. What it does doesn't really matter; it just has to do it in a stunningly effective way. In the realm of graphics software that makes you go, "Aaahhhhhhh," I haven't seen anything to compete with a program called Organic Art, which is just going on sale. Let me be quite clear. Organic Art has no purpose but to make your eyes water. It's just a screen saver. But it has lifted the concept of screen saver to completely new heights.

Some background information is in order. Organic Art is the product of Computer Artworks, a small software house in London. The people and technology behind Organic Art are anything but commonplace.

Let's start with the people. Anyone who has been following the bleeding edge of computer generated lifeform artwork will know the name of William Latham, an independent research fellow with IBM Research, who developed a set of mathematical rules and code for describing how real living things move and evolve. He's had numerous art exhibitions and retrospectives at such places as the National Film Theatre in London. Another notable person at Organic Art is Mark Atkinson. He's a red-hot Windows programmer with many years of experience.

Now, to the technology: Organic Art is not some pseudo-3D program--everything in the program operates in full 3D space. To do this, you need a 3D library and worldspace. Windows NT has OpenGL, but whilst that is just fine for high-resolution, high-precision work, it is not so good for a high-speed environment like a screen saver. Fortunately, a solution is to hand. Just over a year ago, Microsoft acquired a small London development house, RenderMorphics. Its Reality Lab 3D engine is designed for the super high-speed rendering and displaying of 3D scenes. In this context, high speed means multiple frames per second, even when RenderMorphics is doing Gouraud shading, multiple light sources, texture mapping, and so on. The fastest I've seen RenderMorphics running is approximately 30 frames per second.

So what is Organic Art? I can only suggest you look at the screen shots on their Web site (http://www.artworks.co.uk/) and imagine these images running at multiple frames per second. It is totally addictive to watch, and you can choose from dozens and dozens of preconstructed scenes. Even better, a program called Organic Designer lets you build scenes and then save them into the configuration files.

Accessing the screen saver settings is simplicity itself--just go to the usual Control Panel settings page and dial up the Organic Art parameters you want. Obviously, this program is hugely computationally intensive, and it puts a serious strain on your graphics card. So you probably won't run the screen saver at 1280*1024 pixels, but in something like an 800*600 window.

Four warnings are appropriate. First, the Reality Lab engine is not multithreaded, so don't expect to see increased performance on a symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) box. Second, Organic Art is an Intel-only product. No MIPS, Alpha, or PowerPC versions of the core RealityLabs engine are available. However, Organic Art comes in both 486- and Pentium-optimised versions for NT and Windows 95, with core rendering engines optimised for all the color depth options. Third, given the amount of processor horsepower this program can consume, you really wouldn't be wise to put it onto an important NT server. Finally, Organic Art is totally addictive. You get so many things to adjust, and you never really quite know how it's going to develop a scene. The user interface is utterly simple.

This recommendation is mandatory: If you have a fast Intel NT box, you must have a copy of this software to play with. I've been using it for months now, during the beta test period, and I am still enchanted and enthralled. So what if it's a screen saver? Organic Art is a huge demonstration of NT's graphics capabilities. The cost? A totally trivial 29.95 Sterling (approximately $50 US), from Time Warner Interactive. For more information, contact the Organic Art Web site at http://www.artworks.co.uk/.

International Issues
In the next few columns, I'll be looking at some issues that surround the internationalization of software. This month, though, I'll point out a small item that caught my eye and made me really rather angry. While browsing around Microsoft's excellent Web site, I came across a competition to create animation icons for the next version of the Macintosh Internet Explorer. The Universal Resource Locator (URL) for this event is http://www.microsoft.com/ie/news/maccontest.htm. The grand prize is $3000, and Microsoft will incorporate the winning animations in the forthcoming product. Other prizes are $500.

So why am I annoyed? The Web site says, "This is a contest of skill open to residents of the United States only." No explanation is given of why this is a US-only competition, but the competition is there on Microsoft's Web pages, which are available to all, around the world. So I emailed the relevant inquiries address and asked why it is a US-only competition. The reply is fascinating: "This round of the contest is open to the US only because of legal issues. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to get legal permission from all of the different countries to run this contest internationally."

Now, please put yourself in the place of someone outside the US. Microsoft claims to be a global company, has offices in countries all around the globe, and indeed, roughly half its income comes from non-US sales. And yet Microsoft could not work out how to run a competition globally. Can I be cynical and suggest that this indicates a certain lack of effort? After all, Microsoft is only too willing to take our money in English pounds, French francs, and German marks when we buy Microsoft software!