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Intel boosts cloud gaming with ray tracing

Technology brings life-like images to mobiles

A new technology from Intel called ray tracing could bring lifelike images and improved 3D effects to games on tablets and other mobile devices.

The chip maker is creating chips and rewriting games to use ray tracing, which generates accurate images by tracing paths of light and could lead to console-like gaming via the cloud, the company said in a podcast this week.

At some point in the future, after a new Intel chip is released, mobile device users will be able to play complex 3D games over the cloud using real-time ray tracing, which demands a lot of computing power, Intel said. Clusters of power servers with multiple CPUs and vector processing units could process tasks in parallel, with accurate images then being delivered to tablets and smartphones.

Tablets and smartphones are mostly used for casual gaming, but increasingly sophisticated hardware is making the devices capable of handling higher-resolution graphics. Apple's iPad 2 tablet, which was announced last week, has improved graphics capabilities compared to its predecessor, while LG's Optimus 2X smartphone can render 1080p video. A tablet using Nvidia's upcoming mobile chip called Kal-El was demonstrated playing an Xbox 360 game at last month's Mobile World Congress show.

Intel has rewritten the first-person shooter game "Wolfenstein", which looks more realistic with ray-tracing technology, said Daniel Pohl, an Intel researcher, in the podcast.

"We have a red car sitting at a courtyard, which has a very shiny reflective surface. That can be rendered very good ... because ray tracing can do very physically [accurate] modeling of reflections," Pohl said.

For example, ray tracing will let gamers use reflections off the car's surface as a mirror to see if snipers are approaching from the rear, Pohl said. Ray tracing could also add more visual detail such as shadows, which could help enhance 3D effects in a game.

Modern device screens employ millions of pixels and millions of rays are sent out for every pixel, which creates a challenge as a lot of processing power is needed, said John Owens, associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at University of California at Davis, during the podcast.

Billions of rays may need to be continually bounced off objects to accurately sample the changing scenes in a game. Modelling becomes even more complex if a game has a lot of moving objects and changing scenes.

"The reason [ray tracing] isn't pursued in your normal graphics cards today or that most of your games aren't done through it is that actually doing that computation is very challenging," Owens said.

Intel is trying to address the challenge through an experimental server chip called Knights Ferry, which is based on the company's new MIC (many integrated core) architecture. The chip, which was announced in May at the International Supercomputing Conference, is designed for intensive graphics and high-performance computing.

The chip has 32 x86 cores with corresponding 512-bit vector processing units. The cores operate at a clock speed of 1.2GHz, and the chip supports OpenCL and Microsoft's DirectX, which are frameworks that include tools for parallel programming.

Knights Ferry also implements elements of the now defunct Larrabee chip, which was to be Intel's first graphics processor. The chip maker showed Larrabee's ray-tracing capabilities on-stage at the Intel Developer Forum in 2009 in a game titled "Enemy Territory: Quake Wars," but many audience members were underwhelmed by the limited scope of the demonstration.

The first commercial product based on MIC architecture will be a chip called Knights Corner, which the company said will include more than 50 cores. Intel will release the chip in the first half of next year, an Intel executive said on a podcast in late February. Use of ray tracing for mobile gaming hinges on that chip's release.


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