Friday, January 2, 2009

Matrix-style Virtual World

What if a computer could make you a picture-perfect glass of milk, let you feel the tension as it pulled an ant’s leg from another room, and chat you up with the charisma of Oprah Winfrey? No one machine can do all three — yet. But some sophisticated new projects are showing just how far we’ve come toward creating an “I can’t believe it’s not real” virtual world. Computer scientist Michael McGuigan told New Scientist magazine he believed a “Matrix”-style virtual world, in which one cannot always distinguish between what’s real and what’s not, could be up and running in just a few years. His optimism derived in part from the impressive ramp-up in processing speed he obtained with the lab’s BlueGene/L supercomputer while running a conventional ray-tracing software program that mimics the effect of natural light. The result?

An eye-fooling virtual beam. Henrik Wann Jensen, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California at San Diego, is among those leading the charge toward more powerful algorithms that yield, say, a convincing fog-shrouded lighthouse or a frosty glass of 2 percent milk. Best of all, the convergence of speed and power means those virtual stand-ins don’t necessarily require a room-sized supercomputer to produce them.

“Now is a pretty exciting time in graphics,” Jensen says. “We’ve reached a level now where we can make very realistic images: five to 10 hours to make images more or less perfect, where people say, ‘Wow, that’s a photograph!’ ”

Maintaining the same illusion for real-time animation isn’t as far along, largely due to its enormous appetite for computing power. But that limitation is quickly falling by the wayside, Jensen says, with the aid of muscular new graphics processors like Intel’s Larrabee chip and Nvidia’s CUDA technology.