Nvidia pushes Tegra tablets and 3D technology at CES

Nvidia is known for hardcore PC gaming hardware, but at CES company execs instead focused on new areas such as mobile gadgets, smarter cars and 3D display technology.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang and Tegra general manager Mike Rayfield show new slate tablet PCs.

Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang and Tegra general manager Mike Rayfield show new slate tablet PCs using the application processor.

Nvidia is known for PC gaming hardware, but over the past year it has been laying the groundwork to push its graphics processing technology into new areas. At its CES press conference today, CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said work in these areas--specifically, mobile devices, automotive and 3D displays--would start to pay off this year. Surprisingly the one Nvidia execs barely mentioned is its next-generation GPU, though the company has been showing a working GeForce GF100 in other meetings this week.

The first bit of news, which had been rumored, was a new version of Nvidia's Tegra system-on-chip (SoC). Tegra is based on an ARM processor and is designed for mobile devices; the first version is used in Microsoft's Zune HD. Huang described the second-generation Tegra as the "missing link" that will enable a range of gadgets that combine the portability and battery life of a smartphone with the performance, features and compatibility of a PC. By compatibility, Nvidia means devices that have sufficient screen resolution and the software to properly render the Web, which is morphing into an application platform. For example, Huang noted that the Facebook game, Farm Ville, grew to 78 million users in its first six months "making it the fastest growing game of all time, and Facebook the fastest growing game platform of all time." Similarly YouTube serve up 31 billion videos in November.

The new version of Tegra is the first chip based on ARM's dual-core Cortex-A9, and when combined with an Nvidia GPU, this is what gives it the horsepower to handle these sorts of applications. Nvidia says it has about 10 times the performance of a typical smartphone, yet it only requires 500 milliwatts of power--a fraction of the power consumed by a PC. Devices based on the new Tegra will be capable of playing about 140 hours of music or 16 hours of HD video in a single charge.

Nvidia claims there are around 50 new devices based on this version of Tegra in the works, and in particular, Huang predicted that 2010 would be the "beginning of the tablet revolution." Mike Rayfield, the general manager for Tegra, showed off slate tablets including a Foxconn design, an Android-powered one built by a company called ICD for Verizon Wireless, and a Notion Ink e-reader/tablet with a display that switches between backlighting and reflective technologies. Other companies working on Tegra devices include Asus, MSI, Compal, Quanta and Mobinnova. Nvidia also announced that Adobe would port to Tegra its AIR platform for distributing and rendering e-books, and that they were hoping to show this off in "a few months."

To demonstrate the capabilities of the new Tegra chip, Tim Sweeney, the founder of Epic Games, showed how his company had ported the same Unreal Tournament Engine 3 used on Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 to the Tegra developer's kit. "This brings mobile up to current generation high-end consoles basically," Sweeney said. "It's really incredible to see this running on a mobile device."

Nvidia has also been working on putting its technology in cars, though there were fewer details here. The company announced that many Audi cars in the U.S. will use some Nvidia graphics technology, and it said that starting in 2012 all Audi vehicles will use Tegra. Mathias Halliger, chief architect of the info systems at Audi, explained that with some 90 to 100 different computers running in today's Audi, they need powerful processors that will also reduce power consumption and weight.

The 3D Vision technology isn't new, and Nvidia has demonstrated it a few times before, but Huang talked about the progress the company has made with PC companies, display makers, and content providers to make 3D real. Nvidia's technology uses active shutter glasses and a wireless transmitter, as well as a graphics card that supports the 3D content and 120Hz displays. Nvidia said that Asustek, Clevo and MSI all announced high-end gaming notebooks that come standard with Nvidia 3D Vision, and it is demonstrating the technology on desktops from Acer and Dell's Alienware. Nearly all major display manufacturers are incorporating the technology in some products and "basically every game that we know of is [now] compatible with 3D Vision," Huang said. He demonstrated Ubisoft's Avatar The Game, which will come bundled with the 3D Vision kits. Huang also showed how you can use Fujfilm's FinePix W1 point-and-shoot to capture photos and video in 3D, and upload the video to YouTube (there are only about 5,000 3D videos on YouTube now, but he predicted this would grow fast). Nvidia's new generation of GPUs will also provide hardware acceleration of Blu-ray 3D content (the trailer for Disney's A Christmas Carol looked great). Movies based on this specification, which was recently approved, should start appearing in late 2010. Finally, Nvidia announced 3D Vision Surround, which is basically the company's answer to AMD's ATI Eyefinity technology, which drives multiple displays to create a more immersive experience. Nvidia's version renders images of 6 million pixels in 3D at 120HZ.

In the final minutes of Nvidia's press conference, Huang said many people had been asking when the company would ship its new GeForce GPUs based on the Fermi architecture. These DirectX 11 GPUs had been expected to start shipping before the end of 2009, but Nvidia was forced to delay them. Huang said the GeForce GF100 is in volume production and "ramping very hard, but he gave no specifics on when it will be available.

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