GPU revolution poised to go public

'Science fiction is becoming reality' for consumers

Back in the days when personal computers touted their speed as a selling point, they took that number from the central processing unit, or CPU, the “brains” of the computer. Graphics processing units, or GPUs, were an optional add-on, not a part of the conversation.

Today, though, GPUs are standard, and they are all about speed. Mach speed, as Nvidia senior vice president Dan Vivoli puts it.

For visual effects studios, that means complex images can be rendered in seconds or minutes, not hours. That speed has been out of reach for the general public, however, because most consumer software couldn’t talk to the GPU.

With the newest versions of Windows and Mac OS X opening up the GPU, though, consumer devices are poised for a speed boost so great developers are still figuring out what to do with it.

Already, GPUs have helped designers create microwaves that make crispy crusts. Researchers are working on odor-detecting devices that might diagnose cancer, and scientists are inventing cars with GPS that can see well enough to autopilot themselves.

“Science fiction is becoming reality,” says Vivoli. “Ubiquitous Internet, streaming video, smartbooks: When you can hold a super computer in your hand, the things we’ve seen in movies about the future become possible.”

Among the GPU-based home applications on display at the conference was “Silhouette,” a stereoscopic 3D videogame that players control simply by moving their bodies.

“We’re tracking 18 body parts now,” says Michel Tombroff, CEO of Brussels-based Softkinetic, maker of “Silhouette.” “We will optimize our software using the GPU as soon as we have GPUs in set-top boxes or consoles. We’d like to track more body parts and move joints.”

VReveal, from MotionDSP, uses GPUs to offer a one-button fix for dark, shaky, blurry homevideos.

“You can also clean the image and add sharpness,” says Mike Sonders, VReveal product manager. “With the GPU, we’re seeing five times the improvement over CPUs.”

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