(Source: WallStreetJournal) In the film “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the wizard Dumbledore conjures up a tornado of fire that marks a new feat in animation — and a milestone for a breed of chips that are beginning to play broader roles in the computing world.

The simulation was created by Lucasfilm Ltd.’s Industrial Light & Magic unit, which developed software that exploited the collective power of graphics chips from Nvidia Corp. in dozens of computer workstations.

Special-effects houses ordinarily use those desktop machines to conceive and refine animation ideas, while hundreds of servers are used to render final images in a process that can take days or weeks.

But creators of the latest Harry Potter installment wanted an effect that those “render farms” couldn’t deliver — fire that looked realistic, yet could be directed to swirl around the scene precisely.

“Being able to do fire in a directed kind of way was impossible,” says Richard Kerris, Lucasfilm’s chief technology officer.

Chips like Nvidia’s — called GPUs, for graphics processing units — are best known for generating images in videogames. While so-called x86 chips from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. typically have the core circuitry of one to six microprocessors, GPUs have hundreds of simpler processor cores. The GPUs are 50 times as fast for some kinds of chores, Mr. Kerris estimates.

Just how far such techniques may go is one of the hot topics in the computer industry. Nvidia and AMD, which added a GPU business through its 2006 purchase of ATI Technologies, are encouraging the use of the technology for an array of new tasks.

Nvidia Chief Executive Jen-Hsun Huang recently predicted the effort will create a $5 billion market for his company’s chips in high-performance computing, up from $1 billion today.

Intel is placing a different bet. The Silicon Valley giant, which accounts for around four-fifths of the microprocessor market, is developing an x86 variant dubbed Larrabee to compete against GPUs. Initial models, scheduled to arrive next year, are expected to feature 32 processors that each come with accelerating circuitry based on a concept called vector processing.

Intel executives argue that Larrabee will be much easier to program than GPUs. But Nvidia and others are working to make it easier to build software for GPUs, which already are being adopted for new chores in industries such as oil exploration and financial services.

Computer animation is a key battleground. Driven by a relentless push for dazzling effects, many special-effects houses have developed skills to program esoteric hardware. Some observers believe that GPUs are bound to migrate from desktop workstations to the servers used for rendering.

“The render farm is as obsolete today as the rotary phone,” argues Jon Peddie, a Tiburon, Calif., market researcher who specializes in computer graphics.

Those thinking of overhauling their server rooms include Scanline VFX, a German special-effects company that is known for sophisticated simulations of tidal waves and other effects involving water.

Stephan Trojansky, Scanline’s president, estimates that shifting to Nvidia’s chips for more processing chores would allow the company to squeeze 800 processor cores in the space of 16 cores on Intel chips. “We would miss an opportunity if we don’t jump on that train,” Mr. Trojansky says.

Another company adopting GPUs is Otoy LLC, a Los Angelesbased company that is working with AMD to assemble a system with 1,000 GPUs. Jules Urbach, Otoy’s chief executive, says the system will be used to create special effects, as well as to centrally serve up videogames over the Internet.

But some industry executives doubt that GPUs will be a cure-all in Hollywood. The technology works best when applying the same set of instructions to multiple data points, such as when shading pixels on a computer screen. GPUs are less useful when multiple sets of instructions are required.

That’s one reason some effects houses are excited about Larrabee, which Intel predicts will be useful for varied applications. Fans include DreamWorks Animation SKG, which recently became a major user of the chip maker’s technology.

Ed Leonard, DreamWorks’ chief technology officer, applauds the advances by GPU makers but says using them broadly in its server room has so far not seemed worth the effort to modify the company’s software. “It’s all about the performance gain versus the pain,” he says.

The pain paid off for Chris Horvath, a digital supervisor at ILM who worked with another artist to create the software used in the Harry Potter film. Until their work, he says, most attempts to create realistic-looking fire involved filming snippets of real flames and blending them together.

But controlling how fire moves is difficult with that technique, Mr. Horvath says. Another approach creates 3-D models based on large numbers of flame particles, which provides greater control but less realism.

ILM devised an approach that uses a smaller number of particles to approximate the desired movement, while blending together multiple two-dimensional simulations to give the fire its appearance.

“This is the most fun I’ve had working on a project,” Mr. Horvath says. He spent nine months on the fire simulation, which appeared for 45 seconds of the film.

The software also was used for a scene in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which simulates the destruction of a pyramid.

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