Nvidia and "Starting the Next Age of Personal Computing"

Column I’m at the Nvidia GPU Technology conference  and it suddenly hit me that we are at the forefront of another massive change in the computer industry.   

The kinds of projects that are being showcased have change the world potential and the performance benefits that the developers, users, and scientists are citing are in the 10x to 100x+ range from CPU level computing.   They are talking about supercomputing for the masses like we used to talk about computing for the masses before Steve Jobs and the Woz ever created the Apple II.  
This is big stuff, important stuff, world changing stuff, and I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around it and this is something I’m supposed to be good at.  

Rather than trying to focus on the entire event I’m going to focus on what went on during my panel which had Bill Dally Chief Scientist from Nvidia, Simon Hayhurst Senior Director of Product Management from Adobe, Steve Perlman Founder and CEO of OnLive, and Sean Vara CEO of MotionDSP.

The one recurring theme from all of them was that GPU computing was allowing them to do the impossible.  Let’s take each in turn.

Adobe:  Turning Dreams into Virtual Reality
Simon opened for us and he spoke about engineers who believed you couldn’t work on high quality video real time.   Special effects, heavy editing, and digital creation all were batch processes taking hours and days to complete using expensive hardware that was often in very short supply.   This meant they had to be overly concerned about making errors because it could take hours to days to even see the error and then hours or days to correct it putting projects weeks or months in the hole.   This did horrible things to creativity because technicians and artists were unwilling to take risks and try new things because it simply cost too much in time and effort to fix them.  

Well with real time editing being concerned about making mistakes is largely the thing of the past.   While it is taking time to get technicians, engineers, and artists to unlearn past practices as they do they are discovering new areas of creativity and improvements seem to be getting unstuck and starting to move forward again.   He spoke about one engineer that simply stood his ground saying that real time editing was simply impossible and had a major “oh crap” moment when he was shown not only that it was possible but that it could allow him to do things he hadn’t even imagined he could do.   

We chatted about how the cost of being able to do these high quality movie production tasks were dropping like a rock and how this could bring more story tellers to movie industry.  An industry that I personally have felt was too focused on money and not focused enough on the story tellers.   This created the hope that we would see many more breakthrough films from people who never would have had the chance to create one had GPU computing not existed.
MotionDSP – Saving Lives and Property
MotionDSP applies GPU computing technology to police and military videos.  If you’ve ever watched CSI (any of them) there typically is a shot where they take a video from an ATM or stoplight camera and enhance it to see a face or read a license plate.   That is fake; MotionDSP does this for real and the technology is an increasing part of law enforcement and military surveillance.   It is used to do analysis real time so that threats to ships, planes, and solders can be better anticipated and mitigated and criminals can be increasingly caught before they commit their next crime.  

Sean imagined a future world where technology like this could anticipate events and model not just what was happening but what the result would be of observed information minutes in advance.    While I didn’t think of it at the time, this seemed like a possible foundation for a future Minority Report like product but one that didn’t need Psychics.   This would be huge for military, law enforcement, and any kind of real time disaster mitigation program.   None of this would even be remotely possible without GPU computing.

I think that predictions of OnLive’s failure will likely go down on the list of worst technology predictions  of all time.    I’m constantly hearing executives who should know better say that the service and concept simply can’t scale and it is like they completely don’t get how the concept of the cloud works and are drinking from the same source that caused Ken Olsen the CEO of DEC to say “No need for a computer in the home” in 1977.   

This service, which just received a massive amount of funding  from AT&T, Warner Brothers and others , is on the cusp of turning the entire PC and Console gaming market on its ear and the existing gaming giants seem to be reading Mad Magazine and saying “What Me Worry?”.  

The promise of the service is to provide graphics on demand and while it initially targets the gaming market we spoke about it, or services like it, providing super computing capabilities on demand to engineers, scientists, and students in both developed and developing nations at a small fraction of current costs.    

This would change the computing landscape and coupled with the coming WAN technologies of WiMax and LTE, could change the face of mobile and desktop computing as we know it.  OnLive is a showcase of making the impossible possible.

None of this would have been possible without Nvidia seeing a possibility in their GPU that was evident to few others.   That it could be used for things that were more important than gaming, or, more accurately, that the kind of performance a great game needed could also be used to save the world.   This is out of the box thinking and Bill Dally, who drove this conference and much of this effort, spoke of partner after partner who had expressed gratitude for being given a chance to do the impossible.  

The PC industry was formed around the idea of making the impossible possible and, I think, for about a decade, it forgot that.   This Nvidia conference indicates that some are remembering that making the impossible possible is what we do, and that should put fire back into the market and the technology products we use.  

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts
are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and
either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic,
on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his
services to most of the major technology and media companies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.