I was invited to visit the Nvidia Tech Week this past weekend (February 25-26, 2012) at their facilities in Pune. This is a great concept – getting employees to invite friends and relatives to actually see what their company is all about is very good social outreach and a fantastic marketing initiative. If more tech companies in the area do similar events once or twice a year, it will help lift the shroud of technical opaqueness around them. I think hosting similar events in area colleges will also help students realize that even VLSI/Embedded Systems Design is cool.
I was given a personal tour by Sandeep Sathe, a Sr. Development manager at Nvidia and also met with Jaya Panvalkar, Sr. Director and head of Pune facilities. There was enough to see and do at this event and unfortunately I was a bit short on time. It would have taken a good two hours for a complete walk-through, so I decided to spend more time on the GPU/HPC section though the Tegra based mobile device section was also quite impressive. It’s been a while since I actually installed a new graphics card in a desktop (actually, it’s been a while since I used a desktop), but graphics cards have come a long way! Nvidia is using standard PCI Express form factor cards for the GPU modules with on-board fans and DVI connectors.
The following are key takeaways from the demo stations I visited
GeForce Surround 2-D
Here, Nvidia basically stretches the game graphics from a single monitor to three monitors. Great for gamers as it gives a fantastic feel for peripheral vision. The game actually doesn’t have to support this. The graphics card takes care of it. The setup here is that while the gamer sits in front of the main monitor, he also sees parts of the game in his peripheral vision in two other monitors that are placed at an angle to the main monitor. I played a car rally game and the way roadside trees, objects moved from the main monitor to the peripheral vision monitors was quite fascinating.
GeForce 3-D Vision Surround
This is similar to the above, but with 3D. You can completely immerse yourself in the game. This sort of gaming setup is now forcing monitor manufacturers to develop monitors with ultra small bezel widths. I suppose at some point in the next few years, we will be able to seamlessly merge graphics from different monitors into one continuous collage without gaps.
Powerwall Premium Mosaic
Powerwall is a eight monitor setup driven by the Quadro professional graphics engine. Two Quadro modules fit into one Quadroplex industrial PC to drive four monitors. Projectors can also be used in place of monitors to create a seamless view. The display was absolutely clear and highly detailed. The Powerwall is application transparent. Additional coolness factor – persistence data is saved so you don’t lose the image during video refresh and buffer swaps. This is most certainly a tool intended for professionals who need high quality visuals and computing in their regular work. Examples are automotive, oil and gas, stock trading.
PhysX is a graphics engine that infuses real time physics into games or applications. It is intended to make objects in games or simulations move as they would in real life. To me this was very disruptive, and highlight of the show. You can read more about PhysX here. It is very clear how PhysX would change gaming. The game demo I watched had several outstanding effects: dried leaves moving away from the character as he walks through a corridor, glass breaking into millions of shards as it would in real life. Also running was a PhysX simulation demo that would allow researchers to actually calculate how objects would move in case of a flood. What was stunning was that the objects moved differently every time as they would in real life. PhysX runs on Quadro and Tesla GPUs. It is interesting to note that Ra.One special effects were done using PhysX.
3D photos and movies
Next couple of demos demonstrated 3D TV and photo technology using Sony TVs and a set of desktops/laptops. Notably, the Sony 3D glasses were much more comfortable compared to others. Nvidia is working with manufacturers to create more comfortable glasses. There was also a Toshiba laptop that uses a tracking eye camera to display a 3D image to the viewer regardless of seating position without glasses. It was interesting. However, the whole 3D landscape need a lot of work from the industry before it can become mainstream.
What was explained to me was that Optimus allows laptops to shut off GPUs when they are not needed. They can be woken up when high performance work is required. This would be automatic and seamless, similar to how power delivery is in on a Toyota Prius. This sort of a technology is not new to computing – a laptop typically puts a lot of components to sleep/hibernate when not being used, but the GPU is not included.
This allows 2D/3D visualizations for automotive, architectural and similarly complex systems for up to one thousand users at a time. You can easily change colors, textures, views so everyone can comment and give constructive feedback. I was not sure if the design can be changed on the fly as well. Nvidia is working with ISVs like Maya and Autodesk on this.
Tesla GPUs use chips that are used for high performance computing and not rendering, which is different from what Nvidia typically does. The Tesla modules do not have any video ports! It has a heterogeneous GPU/CPU architecture that saves power. In fact, the SAGA-220 supercomputer, dubbed India’s fastest, at ISRO’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Center facility uses 2070 Tesla GPUs along with 400 Intel Xeon processors. In addition to supercomputing, Tesla is very useful in 3D robotic surgery, 3D ultrasound, molecular dynamics, oil and gas, weather forecasting and many more applications.
Tegra Mobile Processor
Next few demos showcased the Tegra mobile applications processor based on ARM Cortex A9 cores. The HD quality graphics and imaging were impressive. It is clear that smartphones and tablets of the day are clearly far more powerful compared to desktops of yesteryear and can support highly impressive video and audio in a very handy form factor.
In all, I had a great time. As I mentioned earlier, Nvidia along with other tech companies in Pune should hold more of these kinds of events to give technology exposure to the larger population in general. I think it is important for people to know that the stuff that makes Facebook run is the real key and that is where the coolness is.