Having studied something about real time systems at college I was always impressed by the ability of 3D games, usually First Person Shooter games to run an environment in realtime. If you think about it it’s actually quite a computing problem to be able to run at often around or above 50fps and keep everything running smoothly and giving the illusion of reality. The early video game pioneers solved the problems in code. As more and more stuff needed to be simulated it became obvious that it is more efficient and sensible to do the calculations needed using dedicated hardware. So we entered the age of the accelerated graphics video card.
The GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) on your card has nothing to do with actually outputting an image. All it is, is a big matrix of specialised calculating circuits that do the maths of locating all the geometry in 3D space as you “move around” in a game. This has had an interesting side effect in the computing world. the GPU’s have basically become the modern version of the “Maths Co Processor” that some PC’s used to come with (I think it’s part of the CPU now). The leverage of the this GPU technology is achieving no small advances. Nvidia recently released their “Tesla” card. It has no video output ! You probably won’t be playing Battlefield on it ! It is hardware purely for doing calculations. These are not your usual calculations. Universites and companies have been using them for what used to be run on “Super Computers”. If you have some of the latest Nvidia (CUDA capable) video cards you actually have a supercomputer in your desktop ! So no need to save up for that Cray anymore.
The upcoming Very Large Telescope has National Instruments LabVIEW working on the problem of how to stabalise it’s huge mirrors. It is not a trivial problem needing thousands upon thousands of calculations in real time (remember, this is exactly what is happening when you are playing a game). They have been using Dell multi core systems, but they have also been testing the use of GPGPU’s (General Purpose Graphics Processing Units) using Nvidia CUDA technology.
( A couple of Labview employees demonstrate. Double click for source page. The guy on the left reminds me of Chief O’Brien from Star Trek ).
So all that time “wasted” playing those 3D video games. All that hard earned money spent on video cards seems to be partly responsible for some rather major advances and research. So next time your parents complain that you’ve been blasting away with that shotgun too much, just remind them that your doing your bit for humanity. Just don’t tell them I told you to say it.