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Page last updated at 17:12 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 18:12 UK

Drawing a picture of the future

Marc Cieslak finds out how the chips behind slick graphics are growing up.

Spore video game
The gaming industry has led the way in the development of graphics

Graphics chipsets are taking over the handling of increasingly complex computational tasks traditionally dealt with by the central processing unit (CPU) in a computer.

The CPU can be thought of as an office manager, concerned with the day-to-day operations of a computer. It is a jack of all trades and master of none and spends its time completing many different sorts of tasks.

Before now the graphics processing unit (GPU) in a computer has done one thing and one thing only - crunch big numbers to display ever-more realistic graphics.

But now that number-crunching specialisation is helping the CPU perform the computational heavy-lifting.

"We have taken some of the functions from the CPU over to the GPU and that allows the CPU to be freed up to continue its daily functions," said Darren Grasby from chip-maker AMD which owns graphics specialist ATI.

Super computer

The development of graphics chips has been driven by the demands of gamers for higher resolution visuals.

Jen-Hsun Hwang, boss at Nvidia
Nvidia's boss says GPU has changed a user's computing experience

Jen-Hsun Hwang, Nvidia co-founder and chief executive, said that users' computing experience had become more sophisticated over time.

"The GPU is, in a way, a super computer on a chip and over the years we have made them more and more programmable.

"So all of a sudden this super computer could be used for all kinds of applications, whether it is Photoshop or Premiere, to accelerate your video editing or making it possible to transcode your video from HD to your iPhone," said Mr Hwang.

That programmability is helping to take the GPU beyond impressive graphics and gives it the potential to power some much more unusual applications.

For instance, the parallel processing power of a GPU is helping give it a role inside cars.

"Initially the requirement was for the infotainment business to give you what I would say is an iPod lookalike in look and feel," said Eddie Seymour from graphics chip specialist Nvidia. "As navigation has become very 3D orientated - all of the maps are going that way."

6D system

The next step for this technology could see it powering integrated virtual dashboards that are fully customisable to show only the instruments a driver wants to see.

Animation of a car's visual dahsboard
The next step for the tech could be integrated visual dashboards in cars

However, some see the true potential of these graphical chips to fundamentally change the way we drive.

6D Vision is a sensing system that uses tracing points to calculate a car's distance from other vehicles or pedestrians.

It uses two car-mounted cameras to help build up a picture for the onboard computer of the size of other objects on the road and how near or far away they are.

"We used to track 1,000 points," said Clemens Rabe from car maker Daimler, "with the GPU we are tracking 10,000 points and analysing them with the CPU in parallel."

"And we can use this in a combination with additional hardware to improve our algorithms even more," Mr Rabe explained.

Mr Rabe said that such a GPU-driven system could eventually be used to "warn the driver, or even take some actions to prevent a collision."

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