The Power Of 3D

3D is now possible, but ensuring its success will demand renewed focus on compute power and energy efficiency.

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By Cheryl Ajluni
Much to the dismay of anyone who recently splurged on a new Blu-ray disk player or flat-panel HDTV, 3D stereoscopic content has become the talk of the town or, in this case, the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show.

Sure, we’ve been down this road before. After all, 3D is nothing new. But it now appears ready to explode into the home in the form of 3D television (Figure 1). Bolstered by what some have termed the “Avatar effect,” many in the electronics industry are hoping the technology will spur some much needed market growth. As Eisuke Tsuyuzaki, chief technology officer at Panasonic explains, “We need top-line growth right now, we need something to kick us out of where we are today, and the thing that’s going to get us there is 3D.”

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Figure 1. The Panasonic 152-inch Full HD 3D plasma display features a new plasma display panel (PDP), developed with quadruple luminous efficiency technology to help deliver an immersive experience to viewers. It creates a true Full HD 3D world by faithfully reproducing 3D content such as Hollywood 3D movie titles.

Unfortunately there are many challenges that lie ahead for 3D stereoscopic content—whether it’s intended for a television display, Blu-ray disks, games, live broadcast channels, or any range of handheld devices. 3D production can be very expensive and complex. Additionally, creating 3D content requires a tremendous amount of computing power and that, according to Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel, means that powerful microprocessors must play a central role in the transition to 3D content creation. But does the increase in 3D content and computing power also translate into increasingly power-hungry devices?

If 3D HDTV’s draw more power will consumers be as inclined to jump on the 3D bandwagon? Will they really be willing to trade the benefits of the 3D experience for the price of a new television and the accompanying higher electricity bill that will follow each month? What if the 3D content is embedded in a battery-operated handheld device? Would consumers welcome the 3D experience at the price of shorter battery life? Somehow this just doesn’t seem like the kind of tradeoff economy-weary consumers are going to make. So, energy efficiency remains a big selling point, but where will it come from?

Otellini thinks the answer may lie with the creation of more efficient microprocessors—something his company just so happens to have worked on in its attempt to aid in the transition of computing from the computer and into the world at large. As he pointed out in his recent CES 2010 keynote speech, “Computing is no longer confined to your computer—it’s everywhere. Advances in connectivity, intuitive user interfaces, immersive content and computer chip performance have allowed computing to move into new areas. Computing moving into all manner of devices and experiences all around us improves our personal productivity and enjoyment.” The recent advances in 3-D stereoscopic content are just one example of how this vision is being realized today.

Building a Low-Power Foundation
Powering this vision will be a slew of efficient low-power processors, like the ones Intel created and recently introduced at CES. Here it announced more than 25 Intel Core processors (the Intel Core i3, Intel Core i5 and Intel Core i7 processors) for laptops, desktop PCs and embedded devices (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. The new Intel Core i3, Intel Core i5 and Intel Core i7 processors range from dual-core to quad-core models and run at frequencies between 1.06 GHz to 3.46 GHz.

The 2010 Intel Core processors are all based on 32nm, second-generation high-k metal gate technology and feature Intel Turbo Boost technology, which can automatically boost a PC’s processing power to adapt to a heavier workload (e.g., for demanding HD and 3D video creation). Most of the new processors have the graphics processor integrated right on the CPU package, along with an integrated memory controller, thereby eliminating the need for a separate graphics and memory chip connected to the main processor. The result is a dramatic space savings, lower power consumption and better cooling for the integrated chips, along with enhanced overall performance.

Intel’s new processors are also energy efficient. The Intel Core i3-330M processor consumes just 25W of power, while the Intel Core i5-520UM mobile processor uses a mere 18W. Additionally, some the company’s new embedded processors use as little as 35W of power.

Last month, AppliedMicro also introduced energy-conscious processors—actually versions of its Power Architecture 405EX, 405EXr, 460EX, 460EXr and 460GT microprocessors that had been optimized for low-power consumption (Figure 3). Nevertheless, the effect is dramatic—a 40% decrease in power consumption and an improvement of 20% in typical power consumption for embedded systems without having to sacrifice performance. This allows system designers to reduce their energy consumption and meet environmentally-conscious goals, while still being able to deal with the increasing performance demands on embedded systems caused by things like the exploding use of video-based applications.

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Figure 3. AppliedMicro’s Power Architecture 405EX now offers up to 40% less power consumption for embedded systems.

While compute power is critical, the role of the graphics processor cannot be overlooked when it comes to 3D. In Intel’s case, it chose to integrate the graphics processor directly on the CPU package. AMD has opted for another approach, launching a series of next-generation ATI Radeon graphics cards with Microsoft DirectX 11 gaming support for stereoscopic 3D and HD gaming on notebook computers.

cheryl4Figure 4. By breaking the teraFLOPS barrier, the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5870 is the world’s fastest mobile graphics processor. Processors like this, coupled with advances like the Blu-ray Disc Association’s Blu-ray stereoscopic 3D standard, will one day soon allow consumers to enjoy high-fidelity 3D entertainment that was once reserved only for theaters.

According to AMD, the new ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5800/HD 5700/HD 5600 and HD 5400 Series graphics processors are among the most technologically advanced and feature-rich mobile GPUs it has ever created (Figure 4). They not only give notebook users full DirectX 11 support, but also deliver ATI Eyefinity multi-display technology, HD multimedia capabilities, and feature ATI Stream technology designed to help optimize Windows 7 notebook performance. ATI Eyefinity multi-display technology enables super-high-resolution panoramic computing for notebooks, enabling mobile users to harness up to six monitors for improved gaming, productivity and entertainment.

A key feature of the new AMD graphics processors is energy efficiency. Thanks to an improved processor design and new 40nm process, they feature four times the performance-per-watt efficiency over the last two generations of ATI Mobility Radeon Premium graphics. Next-generation Vari-Bright technology (used for optimizing notebook display brightness) delivers up to 50% power savings over the previous generation’s software based approach. Additionally, the processors experience lower idle power and have platform-independent graphics switching technology which helps to save power while offering efficient switching options.

Advancing 3D Entertainment
With compute power and energy efficiency in check, attention quickly turns to standardization. For 3D to really take off, interoperability of products will be essential. That’s where standards like the Blu-ray Disc Association’s Blu-ray 3D video standard comes in. Finalized at the end of last year, it employs an amended H.264 codec called Multiview Video Coding (MVC) to deliver stereoscopic 3D images. Surprisingly, it uses only about 50% more data than equivalent 2D media. This is a certainly a good step toward increasing demand for the technology, as are the recent announcements of 3D television testing in Finland and DirecTV’s plan to launch its first 3D channel for the United States in early 2010.

But, whether or not this means that “older” technologies like Blu-ray and HDTV will one day become obsolete still remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, the real excitement will be in seeing how the combination of energy-efficient computing power and 3D stereoscopic content comes together to inspire new applications in everything from notebooks, smart phones and gaming to cameras or whatever other handheld device can be envisioned in the future.