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Virtual world market opens doors for chipmakers

Posted: 25 Sep 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:virtual world? 3D Internet? microprocessors?

The Internet is gearing to move across virtual worlds of cinematic quality with new forms of entertainment, conducting business, and socializing, providing chipmakers with unprecedented opportunities.

"There's an insatiable demand for computing power here," Intel Corp. chief technologist Justin Rattner told analysts and reporters following his keynote on the last day of the Intel Developer Forum last week. "We don't know what the limits are. That's a big incentive for manufacturers like us."

The chip giant wants to be sure that its microprocessors are driving the evolution of the Internet to 3D realism from today's 2D graphics seen in virtual worlds like Second Life and online multiplayer games like World of Warcraft. Intel is determined to be among the first to rally the industry around the development of standards and technology that would one day make it possible to move user-generated content and avatars from one virtual world to another.

"That's why I wanted to do it today," Rattner said, referring to his decision to dedicate his keynote to the rise of what he called the "3D Internet." "In six months or a year, everyone is going to be talking about it."

Virtual scope
Intel believes the move toward virtual worlds as a place for businesses and for people to socialize and be entertained is an unstoppable force. Second Life, for example, has already created an economy in which people can exchange virtual money for real dollars, an example of how people are embracing these environments and creating an entirely new set of interactions, Rattner said.

Outside of the Internet, virtual environments are being used today in education. As an example, Rattner brought onstage Aaron Oliker, co-founder of Biodigital Systems, which is building 3D visualization systems for medical simulation. Oliker showed through animation the reconstruction of the mouth of a child suffering from a cleft lip and palette.

In the future, as medical simulations become visually more real and less cartoon-like, they can be used as interactive educational tools for surgeons, said Joseph Teran of the University of California, who followed Oliker on stage.

Stepping up the game
To reach the visual quality imagined by Teran, a 100-fold increase in today's computational power on the server is needed, Rattner said. Virtual worlds today on the Internet typically use 70 percent of a computer's processing power to render graphics, leaving little room for much else.

To introduce the next level of realism in today's virtual worlds, the computer industry needs to provide general processors with three times today's power, and graphic processors with 20 times the muscle, Rattner said. Also needed to achieve a natural experience is a 100-fold increase in bandwidth.

Beyond power, there's also the need for chips that support new techniques in rendering graphics. Intel labs, for example, is working on technology that would support a rendering technique known as "ray tracing," which supporters say will eventually take over raster graphics for interactive gaming. The technique offers the ability to render such difficult simulations as water or fire, as well as realistic lighting, shadowing, and reflections. "We really think that ray tracing is going to be a very important technology in moving to the 3D Internet," Rattner told keynote attendees. "The physical correctness of ray tracing gives you a very natural scene."

Intel showed a videogame that took advantage of the technique on a computer powered by two quad-core Intel processors. The game used 100 percent of the processing power to deliver 100 frames per second at visual quality of 1,280 x 720 pixels. Hollywood used ray tracing in developing special effects for the movies Poseidon and two of the three Pirates of the Caribbean films.

As the 3D Internet evolves, Intel also sees the need for new devices for interacting with a computer, Rattner said. A special 3D mouse, for example, would make it easier to move an avatar through a virtual world, and haptic technology would provide sensory feedback to make the user feel more of a part of the virtual world.

Beyond improving the interaction with digital environments, security technology will also be needed to build trust between avatars conducting business, or taking part in some other social interactions.

Put it all together and the challenges in moving the Web to a 3D environment will require lots of innovation, and a firm commitment by many tech companies in order to develop all the necessary pieces. Because no one company can do it alone, Intel is not ready to call itself a leader. "We're not leading anything yet," Rattner said. "We're out in the industry, judging the levels of interest."

- Antone Gonsalves

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