Join Date: Apr 2006
Nvidia and AMD give a glimpse into future console GPUs beyond PS3, X360
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Nvidia, ATI/AMD look beyond GPUs toward unified gaming engines
Oct 11 2007 3:26PM
A roundtable discussion in San Francisco this morning provided a quick glimpse into a very possible future for console gaming hardware: an evolution beyond the XBox 360 and the PlayStation-3 to a future that changes the entire role of graphics processing units (GPUs.) The discussion started with the observation that both Nvidia and ATI, before the latter’s absorption into AMD, have been actively exploring general-purpose computing applications for the highly-parallel shading engines in their GPUs.
Jonah Alben, vice president of GPU engineering at Nvidia, said that this thread began when, in response to game-developers’ requests for more ability to differentiate, the GPU architects made the shading engines on their chips programmable. This not only allowed game developers to put their own shading algorithms—which have a significant impact on game appearance—on the GPU hardware, but it also incidentally created a very large array of somewhat-general little parallel processing units, each with its own local memory, ALU, and instruction set.
It didn’t take too long for developers in other applications to latch onto that fact. Today, applications developers have programmed GPUs to analyze financial instruments, to reduce geological data, and to do the heavy lifting in a variety of other applications. IBM fellow James Kahle made a similar remark about the arguably more general, if less parallel, IBM Cell processor. Cell-based blades are being used today for financial analysis, geological exploration and medical imaging, he said. Alben added that despite the somewhat limited instruction sets of the GPU shading engines, the only criterion for applications being ported to them seemed to be that the applications be parallelizable.
But then the discussion turned back to the world of gaming consoles. Many of the intense, non-graphics tasks that go into an immersive game are also at least moderately parallelizable: game physics and probably the artificial-intelligence engines that run game sequence are examples. Could these tasks also be moved to the GPU, perhaps with a little more general-purpose tweak to the shading-engine hardware? The consensus was that yes, there were important opportunities there.
This in turn brought two very interesting observations. One, from Cadence CTO for design systems Ted Vucurevich, was that the shading engines really needed 64-bit datapaths to exploit these opportunities. But since 64-bit was already being discussed simply to upgrade graphics rendering, this could well be within the GPU vendors’ roadmaps. Vucurevich also pointed out, parenthetically, that Cadence is investigating using GPUs to do the complex calculations in the parallelizable codes within EDA tools.
The other comment, by AMD vice president of engineering Robert Feldstein, was that the computing power of GPUs could be harnessed for processing graphic input, as well as for rendering. For example, he suggested, a camera tracking the console user could provide a video stream. The GPU could analyze this video to extract gestures, motion, and even facial expressions from the user, providing an input to the game system even more natural and immersive than that offered by controllers on the Nintendo Wii.
The idea that the GPU, once regarded as a non-programmable fixed-function device could emerge as the real computing heart of the game system, taking major tasks away from the CPU, is fascinating. But the rapid spread of GPU-based computing in other areas suggests that this is a very plausible future for gaming SoCs. And, as we have seen repeatedly in the past, if the console gaming industry makes something inexpensive enough, architects will figure out how to use it in embedded systems as well. Stay tuned.