Diverging Worlds

Power is forcing a wedge between those applications requiring high-speed graphics and those that run on a battery.

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The big surprise at the GPU Technology Conference this year, spearheaded by Nvidia, isn’t that GPUs are getting faster or that they can do amazing things. It’s that so little attention has been paid to the volume platforms that people carry around in their pockets.

What has always been interesting about GPUs is they are the one platform where software can be truly parallelized and accelerated to take advantage of many cores and arrays of processors. For graphics-intensive applications—and there are some really interesting ones—the platform of choice is not the processor. It’s an array of many-core devices connected to a multicore processor.

This is a sizable market in its own right, of course. Modeling and simulation applications are the next big thing in medicine, oil exploration, scientific exploration, and molecular modeling. Drug companies, oil companies and universities pay big bucks for this kind of equipment. The more horsepower that can be connected to these applications to make them render images in multiple dimensions the better.

Consider, for example, Autodesk’s new 3ds Max program for interior designers and architects. It actually will follow the photons of light through glass, off shiny objects and create a photograph-accurate drawing within minutes using some very high-powered cloud-based GPUs. Or the Adobe 4D image processing that allows a camera to take photos using multiple (plenoptic) lenses, then reconstruct the image on the computer to focus near, far, or even create 3D pictures. Or the forthcoming ace pilot video game that uses 4 billion triangles to render realistic maps and flying in 3D.

This is cool stuff, for sure. Science and graphics have found their platform of choice, and there’s plenty of hard work underway in creating these kinds of simulations and models. It will probably even sell more workstations and computers, and in some cases run on back-end servers.

But for the real volume markets—the billions of portable multifunction devices—this is a long way from reality. Video eats power and creates heat. The software is still inefficient. And even cloud-based processing requires great graphical displays, which have to be plugged into the wall if they’re used for any length of time.

What’s intriguing about all of this is that while most markets have been converging, these two worlds are actually diverging. At some point there will have to be a bridge, but given the complexity of both worlds that may be far more difficult the longer these two worlds remain separate.

–Ed Sperling