I graduated from my undergrad program last December. My grades and GRE scores are good but my school is relatively unknown. I don't really have research in the sense that I haven't published anything, and I don't believe anything I've done to be particularly novel. The school I went to was a teaching college, there wasn't a strong emphasis on research.
That said, I have been known (as my recommendation-writing professors will surely vouch) to do projects wherein I pick a topic, read a bunch about it, and then implement what I've read about. At present, I'm writing a ray-tracing renderer, and I plan to implement a lot of advanced features by the time I actually apply to grad school, such as photon mapping and an BVH data structure. I also plan to implement a few more shiny bells and whistles based on techniques I've read from different SIGGRAPH papers, but I don't believe I will be doing anything that no one else has done before, especially in the 4 months left until my application is submitted.
For what it's worth, however, this project is 100% my own. I never took a graphics class while in college. I work 40 or more hours a week a software developer, and I do most of my work by waking up at 5:30AM and working until I start work at 9. I do most of my research (into papers and topics) when I get home, and during the work day when I have a few minutes.
My question is, how valuable is the information I just listed? Does the attitude demonstrated above make up for the fact that I don't really have terribly original research? What about the fact that my professors probably aren't that well known?
This applies mostly to the top tier of schools. I will be applying to several non-elite schools as well, but it is with the top schools that I am most worried about my lack of research. Do I have even a small chance to get into a top school, or am I simply noncompetitive as a candidate?
-- As for work experience, I have 8 months of experience as an intern at a fairly high profile research institute, but the truth is the work they had me do while there really wasn't research. My current job is developing mobile applications and websites. I find it very underwhelming, and I imagine graduate schools will as well.