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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Companies in
Silicon Valley often say their technology
is sexy. Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of Nvidia Corp. here, is showing off
something that really is.
It is a computer-generated mermaid
named Nalu, with a cloud of golden
tresses that realistically seem to reflect
dappled light and flow with the water.
Nalu has rosy, unusually lifelike skin,
and she is displaying generous quantities
of it with a flirtatious wiggle.
when they move, talk, laugh and cry.
Over time, such chips are likely to
inspire richer forms of entertainment,
where story lines and character development are as important as action, that will
appeal to broader audiences.
"The videogame market is now mainly
targeted at young men," Mr. Huang says.
Soon, he adds, "you could imagine interactive soap operas."
More than 2,000 miles away, in a suburb of Toronto, executives at rival ATI
Technologies Inc. are preparing a coming-out party for Ruby, another computerized creation who also has a skin
texture unusually detailed for a
videogame character, along with a
shock of red hair and pneumatic chest.
And while Intel's chips have circuitry for one electronic brain handling
calculations, graphics chips have
multiple processors for specialized
jobs performed in parallel. Nvidia's
latest chip has the equivalent of 32
specialized brains; ATI will disclose
details of its new chip at its own
event this month.
This is why voluptuous Nalu and
Ruby are more than just a form of eye
candy: Human skin and hair have
been among the hardest textures to
simulate convincingly, so their technology presents a breakthrough.
Nevertheless, both companies still are a
long way from the industry's ultimate
goal -- artificial worlds that are indistinguishable from reality. But in the hands
of skilled programmers, the chips will
help bring a new level of realism and
emotional force in games by creating
characters that are more convincing
Mr. Huang vows to take the lead with
the new chip the company is introducing
today at a company-sponsored event
expected to draw hundreds of gamers to
San Francisco. ATI is also confident
about Ruby's prospects in the
graphics beauty pageant. "I don't
think there is any doubt that we will
win this round," says Rick
Bergman, an ATI senior vice president in charge of its desktop products.
The competition between the two
graphics-chips makers has caused
the power of graphics chips to double every year. By comparison, Intel
Corp's microprocessors typically
double in performance every 18
months or so. Nvidia's new
GeForce 6 chips, for example, have
a whopping 222 million transistors - nearly twice the number in Intel's
most-powerful Pentium 4 microprocessor.
The two characters are unlikely soldiers in a fast-moving technology
battle helping to shape the evolution of digital entertainment.
Nvidia and ATI, the two leading
providers of chips that control
graphics on personal computers
and other gadgets, developed the
animated figures to demonstrate
the power of the improved technology each company is unveiling this month. The realism of
animation increases as images
use a greater number of geometric building blocks, called polygons, to create them. Nalu is composed of 300,000 polygons; Ruby has
80,000 -- both far in excess of what
most video images today have.
Nvidia, which had a prior computerized
model dubbed Dawn, says its creations
are realistic enough to draw offers to
appear in TV commercials. "We are getting calls from Hollywood agencies,"
says Mark Daly, a vice president in
charge of digital content. "It's pretty
Still, Nvidia still accounted for 58% of
the 23 million PC graphics chips sold for
desktop PCs in the fourth quarter of
2003, says industry watcher Mercury
Research, compared with 38% for ATI.
Nvidia and ATI, which both have sales
of about $2 billion and market capitalizations topping $4 billion, are longtime
rivals in the graphics-chips business.
Although ATI was a graphics pioneer,
Nvidia outstripped it several years ago to
dominate the sector. Lately ATI has been
regaining market share. Microsoft Corp.
picked ATI to supply chips for its next
videogame system, succeeding Nvidia,
which makes chips for the current Xbox
Dueling demos: Nvidia's Nalu and ATI's
Ruby, right, illustrate the lifelike
imagery made possible by the new
graphics chips.
Such chips, built into PCs or sold
on accessory graphics cards, are the
source of most of the images on a
PC screen. As such, they are
increasingly important to the design
decisions of engineers, movie studios, advertising agencies and Web
developers, says Jon Peddie, an industry
analyst in Tiburon, Calif. The standard
microprocessor, in many instances, acts
as a mere "coprocessor" to the graphics
chips, he says.
When creating a game, designers define
geometric models of objects and characters and then determine how they will
move. They later define visual textures,
such as simulated skin, cloth, wood or
metal, and arrange artificial light sources
that determine colors and shadows. A
computing step called rendering creates
the images that users see. The more
powerful the graphics chip, the greater
the degree of detail and range of choices
a designer has at his disposal.
In animated movies, with a set number of
scripted scenes, studios can throw hundreds
of computers into a final rendering process
that creates ultrarealistic images. Computer
games typically have lacked the realism of
movies because they offer nearly infinite
possibilities for action and have to render
scenes as users play them.
These latest Nvidia and ATI chips are narrowing the gap in image quality between
games and movies. A key reason is a set of
programming conventions, defined by
Microsoft, that assigns a tiny piece of software to define the light and shade on each of
the thousands of picture elements, or pixels,
that make up a display screen.
As graphics chips become more powerful,
the hardware movie studios and game makers use eventually could become the same,
allowing them to swap scenes and characters.
"It's going to become completely possible to
have the graphics engines used for gaming
also used in film rendering," says John
Carmack, co-founder and technical director
of id Software, which is finishing a longawaited game called Doom III that took four
years to produce.
Game makers already are moving toward
film-quality images. Another high-profile
game sequel called Half-Life 2 is expected to
produce unusually realistic people, even with
existing graphics. Valve, a closely held software company in Kirkland, Wash., has developed a system that simulates 40 muscle
movements in human speech -- one of the
most difficult actions to mimic. The movements will be used by protagonist Gordon
Freeman, a virtual character who already is a
star from the first Half-Life game.
Graphic chips also have helped games
become a spectator sport, attracting onlookers who watch the action at tournaments on
big display screens. "The nicer the games
look, and the more realistic they look, the
more appealing it is for people to watch,"
says Craig Levine, manager of Team 3D, a
gaming team whose sponsors include Nvidia.