It's been a couple of years since Matrox last impressed the graphics market with the introduction of the G400 chipset. Featured in products such as the Millennium G400 Max, it brought dual-display operation to the consumer space.
The following year saw the release of the G450 chipset, a slightly disappointing die-shrunk chip revision that brought the same features to an even lower price point. But other products now offer dual-display support, as well as considerably higher performance levels, so what has Matrox been doing while Nvidia tried to take over the world?
The simple answer is the new G550 chipset. The complicated answer takes a little longer.
The G550 continues the tradition of dual-head support, and the Millennium G550 graphics card will feature both a 15-pin D-Sub alongside a DVI-I port for digital or analogue signalling (with adaptors provided for composite or S-Video). It also improves on the 3D capabilities of the precedent G450 chipset by adding dual-texel processing for single-pass, multiple texture effects. This will improve 3D games performance, but won't challenge existing chips like Nvidia's GeForce series, which can already handle up to eight texels per clock.
So, rather than attacking the opposition head on, Matrox has taken the G550 off on a radical tangent with a new feature called the HeadCasting Engine. It's the result of a technology partnership with Digimask and LIPSinc, and is capable of rendering a realistic 3D representation of the user's face while synchronising facial expression and lip movement to a live or recorded vocal track. To set up your virtual twin, you'll need to send two digital photographs of your head to Digimask, who will return the geometric model and texture data that the G550 requires in a 600K mail attachment.
As you can imagine, the effort required to construct and animate a face is considerable, and the G550 uses its own 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.
The purpose of all this is communication, primarily across the Internet. 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 (2000 and XP). So you can record a vocal track for your presentation that's keyed to the slide progression, while your virtual head will do the talking for you. Which could be popular in situations where the speaker can't attend.
We can't really comment until we've tested the product for ourselves, but it seems as though Matrox has created a product for a market that doesn't currently exist. That said, no-one really expected DualHead to be particularly popular, either.
Glossary of terms:
Die-shrunk: Making a chip physically smaller while retaining the original design. The physics of semiconductors means that smaller chips are faster and use less power than larger versions
Dual head: The ability to plug two monitors into one board.
DVI-I: Digital Video Interface with analogue and digital signals. The alternative, DVI-D, is just digital.
Texel: A three-dimensional pixel, used as the base element for generating textures (TEXture Element).
Constant registers: Very fast on-chip memory locations containing information needed many times in the production of an image.
Expect a full review (and talking head) to appear here shortly.
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