This is part of IEEE Spectrum's SPECIAL REPORT: WINNERS & LOSERS 2009, The Year's Best and Worst of Technology.
Corrected 14 January 2009
Chips based on Intel’s Larrabee architecture aren’t on the shelves yet, but the design is already a hot property because it promises to beat the chips that game designers now use to model graphics.
And the market for such graphics capability goes beyond video games. Consider Monsters vs. Aliens , which DreamWorks Animation plans to release later this year. In classic B-movie style, the film will be in three dimensions, but this won’t be your daddy’s 3-D. Because the digital stereoscopic system delivers a different perspective to each eye so deftly, it won’t strain your eyes or turn your stomach. That’s why the technology can show you giants battling not just for minutes at a time but for the entire hour, and why it’ll dominate the market as its ’50s-era forerunner never could.
Graphics like these don’t happen with commercial off-the-shelf graphics chips, and that’s where Intel’s Larrabee comes in. It’s an architecture, now in late development, for a multicore general-purpose graphics-processing unit (GPGPU), one of many in a new category that’s sometimes called a hybrid because it combines the functions of a multicore central-processing unit (CPU) with those of a graphics-processing unit (GPU). The idea is to do the jobs exclusive to each kind without wasting time on interchip chatter. But Larrabee has critical advantages over the other designs. First, Intel claims that it’ll provide greater speed at a lower cost. Second, Larrabee is based on Intel’s x 86 architecture, which millions of developers know like the backs of their hands, and it can be programmed in C and C++, languages they know like the roofs of their mouths. Finally, Larrabee is backed by the full weight of Intel.
Though graphics applications are what Larrabee’s intended for, they won’t be all it ends up doing. Chips based on the Larrabee architecture may one day allow your computer to watch a sporting event, identify the players, pick out the most significant, and generate highlight reels automatically. They may enable your laptop to sift through thousands of digital photos, correctly identify the people in each one, and label them so you can find exactly the snapshots you want. They may even be able to help researchers manage and then visualize vast amounts of data in such fields as genetics, geophysics, finance, and computational neuroscience.