NVISION: Nvidia's Quest For Second Place

Analyst Opinion - Intel has IDF and NVIDIA has NVISION. Both shows have some similar goals, but the two couldn?t be more different. Intel?s show is button down and professional while NVIDIA?s is a little crazy. Intel dominates the PC hardware space and, as it often was in the Olympics last week, the real competition is for number 2, or Silver and Nvidia clearly wants that spot. AMD plays very conservatively generally leveraging partners like Microsoft who often have their own agendas. Nvidia is taking a much more aggressive path and while the press room I?m writing this in is sponsored by Microsoft, there is no sense at all that this is anything but an Nvidia event.

For some time, I have been thinking that PC computing has been too much about work and the fun is being driven out of the market. The kind of fun that created companies like Apple and Dell just didn?t seem to be around that much anymore. That is, with the exception of Nvidia, which puts on one of the best shows in the industry.

I got my first sense of this when I tried to park in a lot across from the convention center and was met by two stunning girls dressed up like police officers. If police officers looked like this there clearly would be a lot more of us actually trying to get tickets. They indicated that this massive lot was reserved for gamers who had special invitations to attend the massive LAN parties taking up much of the convention center.

Jen-Hsun Huang, the Nvidia CEO is one of the few folks in the industry, other than Steve Jobs, who has near rock star status. Though he is far less retrained and far less well packaged. Some of us think that if Jen-Hsun went through the same training that Jobs went through, he would be one of the few people who could actually replace Jobs at Apple.

Keynote: Virtual or real?

A part of a keynote is to capture the imaginations of the audience and in a keynote for a show like this, one part of that goal is to draw people into the show that will follow. Jen-Hsun?s first major point was on general purpose parallel computing. Nvidia?s industrial product, the (Tesla) CUDA GPU does 1 TFlops of performance, which is equivalent to 1000 Cray XMP super computers (leaving the memory out of consideration.) Nvidia?s problem is that most developers focus on the CPU and the company?s goal is to get people to consider this unused GPU power and program for supercomputing instead. He made a solid point but he also showcased that the current market is largely focused on something else.

He then moved to an area that was more comfortable, that of digital prototyping and designing cars. The showcase car was the Lamborghini Momentum, a car that is being designed without a physical prototype. The car is created virtually and then projected full size in a photo realistic way. Only 20 cars will be built costing about $1.6 million each. Even before the first car is built, all 20 were sold simply by showing the 3D image. There are implications across a number of industries, which could dramatically reduce the time to market and the prototyping cost for many companies.

Huang spent some time pointing out the wonder of 3D applications like Google Earth and how they are transforming how we look at the world. But it was the virtual world where he really started to pick up steam. According to the executive, one out of seven people are playing MMOs, mostly World of Warcraft. Bringing in a company from Asia, Huang demonstrated how you could create an accurate virtual version of yourself and, using this, create a realistic virtual world providing a way for remote vendors to sell you clothing and furniture by showcasing how it would really look near or on you. This is much of what the 3D web, or Web 3.0, is supposed to be and this demonstration was a nice showcase of that.

Huang then moved to ESPN and Sportvision where for sports the image is virtualized real time so analysis can actually use real game or race elements to visually represent, still real time, what is going on at the race. One compelling example of this was showcasing NASCAR drafting by utilizing a combination of a GPU-based system with a high-accuracy GPS system in the race cars and the analysis staff. You can actually see how drafting works, simply by watching a virtual representation of the airflow on the cars as they race.

The next segment was on Photosynth, a new offering from Microsoft that enables you to take pictures and then stitch them together to create a 3D image of the item you wanted to capture. You can then navigate around this 3D object. Expanding on this and using 3D glasses, we watched a short 3D gaming cut scene and showcased Age of Empires in 3D (for a strategy game, 3D is amazing). But one of the problems with 3D is that a mouse is too limited and this fact brought us to multi-touch. This was amazing, but the key was gestures.

Describing this would be harder than describing a mouse to someone who had only seen a command line. For those that at least have seen an iPhone, it is vastly easier. Just imagine an iPhone screen in the 65" range and the ability to use writing devices along with your fingers. Then figure, using gestures, you could bring up menus wherever you needed them, add animation, bring up applications like search, and manipulate these objects in real time anyplace on the screen. Cancel that 30" screen. Now I want one of these huge touch screens to play with. The sad thing is that this technology is only available at the high end, but Windows 7 suggests it may only be a little more than a year away for the rest of us.

Closing, Battlestar Gallactica and the future

The keynote closed with one of the actors, who played an attractive blond Cyborg from Battlestar Gallactica, and showed her being virtualized. This got me thinking about the future and the fact that much of what we saw had to do with real time adjustments to reality. At some point, much of what we see initially on screens, and eventually in the real world, may not, in fact, be real. Recall those parts of the Olympics we thought were real weren?t and you will realize that this future may be closer than you think.

In any case, as I thought back on the keynote, most of this was more on how you might change the world. Typically, this is well beyond the battlefield for second place. Nvidia may be looking for gold and that should make the next couple of years very interesting.

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.