Matrox chipset starts 3-D heads talking

Virtual show and tell? The chipmaker's new G550 chipset helps people create a 3-D version of their face that can lip-synch to audio feeds-like PowerPoint presentations.

It's been a couple of years since Matrox last impressed the graphics market with the introduction of its G400 chipset with dual-display support. So what has Matrox been doing while rival chipmaker Nvidia tried to take over the world?

The answer is in the newly launched G550 chipset. It seems that Matrox has created a product for a market that doesn't currently exist--for simulated heads to go with Voice Over IP (VoIP).

Rather than attacking the opposition head on, Matrox has taken the G550 off on a radical tangent. A new feature, called the HeadCasting Engine, is designed to render a realistic 3D representation of a face, and to synchronize that face's expressions and lip movement to a live or recorded vocal track. The engine is the result of a technology partnership with Digimask and LIPSinc.

To set up a virtual twin, people send two digital photographs of their head to Digimask. The company sends back a geometric model of the head with texture data in a 600K mail attachment.

The G550 then constructs and animates the face using its hardware-assisted Vertex Shader with Matrix Palette Skinning to smooth the textures over the underlying wireframe. Matrox claims that the G550 is more powerful than the GeForce3 in this context, because it can handle 256 constant registers against the Nvidia chip's 96, providing a much smoother, more realistic model.

Matrox provides dual-head support in the G550, which means two monitors can be plugged into one board. The Millennium G550 graphics card will feature both a 15-pin D-Sub alongside a DVI-I (Digital Video Interface) port for digital or analogue signaling (with adaptors provided for composite or S-Video).

In addition, the G550 has better 3D capabilities than the G450 chipset that came before it, since it packs dual-texel processing for single-pass, multiple texture effects. (A texel is a three-dimensional pixel, used as the base element for generating textures.) This will improve 3D games performance. But it won't challenge existing chips like Nvidia's GeForce series, which can already handle up to eight texels per clock.

The G550 chipset with HeadCasting is targeted at the communication market, primarily Internet-based communication. With the use of Voice Over IP (VoIP) packages increasing dramatically, Matrox, Digimask and LIPSinc are all hoping that people will want to add a visual element to low-bandwidth connections where video conferencing simply isn't possible. Because the model is held and animated locally, the requirements are the same as a standard VOIP connection--although you'll need to send out the HeadCast data beforehand.

The Millennium G550 will also come with a PowerPoint plug-in (for Windows 2000 and XP). For presentations, people can record a vocal track that's keyed to a slide progression, and the virtual head will do the talking.


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