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November 29, 1993

SILICON GRAPHICS HAS ITS EYE FIRMLY FIXED ON MASS-MARKET TECHNOLOGIES OF TOMORROW

By CBR Staff Writer

The terms Silicon Graphics Inc and Jurassic Park have shared more than the odd press article of late, due to the parts of the film rendered using Silicon Graphics technology. The work done by the Mountain View, California company’s publicity machine to establish this seems to mirror the processing work done by the graphics machines themselves. The Jurassic Park work embodies Silicon Graphics’s philosophy these days, because it marries high-end computer graphics with popular entertainment. The company has recently capitalised on some other fashionable industry trends – games technology, virtual reality and interactive television being the main three. Silicon Graphics has also mapped out an evolution path for its graphics technology, moving at least a little way into the future.

Excited

Talk of future developments in an area as accessible as computer graphics is guaranteed to get people excited. Steve Webb, UK marketing manager for Silicon Graphics, talks of the current technology in terms of digital media, digitised sound and video clips. The other technology that’s being perfected is the ability to improve reality by introducing imperfections into the equation. Reality is far from perfect, and so the company’s latest machine, the Onyx supercomputer, produces fog and haze in real time to give computer-generated environments that lived-in look. One aim of graphics technology would be commercial: to get this sort of technique in hardware down onto the lower end graphics systems, so that what they display could become more realistic without interfering with performance by using software techniques that eat up processing power. Webb talks about more esoteric technologies further down the line: We’re striving towards graphics to be faster to get photorealism in three dimensions. As far as the wacky technology’s concerned it would be interesting to see where holography’s going. He warns that animated holograms is not an area that Silicon Graphics would investigate itself, but that it would pick up projects from research institutions if they arose. One of the things holding back the use of computer graphics technology is the relatively slow development of display technology. With low yields on flat screen colour displays making them expensive, the portability of high end graphics systems is still restricted. Webb predicts that when flat screen colour becomes common, some people may start using the displays for eyephones – stereo headsets that can be used for virtual reality or for viewing some textual or graphical information in a head-up display, like glasses with a data inlay. He warns that there are problems with this, though, because resolution in smaller screens isn’t as good, and people may object to having their work in front of them all of the time. The projects in which Silicon Graphics is involved have been documented: Project Reality seems set for great things.

By Danny Bradbury

This connection with Nintendo Co Ltd to develop a games machine that will be designed for virtual reality and general games technology could help Nintendo to fight Sega Enterprises Ltd head-to-head in the 64-bit market. (The company is trailing Sega in the 16-bit games sector). The deal could also help force down other forms of graphics technology, according to Webb, who says that the firm could explore other areas as a result, such as digitising home videos and introducing titling and editing technology. This constant pushing of technology into the low end is a bold diversification for the firm, but will reap massive rewards if successful: the market for these sorts of machines runs into millions of units. Meanwhile on the interactive television side, the company has been getting its hands dirty in Florida. The pilot for interactive television in Orlando, undertaken by Silicon Graphics in partnership with Time Warner Inc, will kick off in 4,000 homes next year, using the electronic guts of a Silicon Graphics Indy machine powered by a derivative of the MIPS Technologies Inc R4400 RISC chip in all participating homes. These machin

es will use the Indy multimedia chip set and will link up with Silicon Graphics Challenge servers at a central site. The system will initially provide video on demand and home shopping services. The video films, when selected, willbe played from the central site on the fly. This eliminates the need for massive hard disk storage at the client end. The home machines will not require a keyboard, but will instead use a remote control interface developed by Silicon Graphics and Time Warner together. The trick comes in getting the cannibalised Indy machines productised if the pilot programme succeeds, a trick which if completed will presumably speed the fall in price of graphics technology and help to pull R4400-based technology down into the embedded market. The firm is getting busy in the virtual reality industry, too: it is currently friendly with Bristol, England-based virtual reality company Division Group Plc, and has signed the firm as a value added reseller on both sides of the Atlantic. This resulted in a $500,000 system being shipped to Matsushita Electric Industrial Co, which simulates the interior of a home in immersive mode. British Gas Plc, meanwhile, is piloting a system which it calls Kitchen Reality – a desktop-based virtual reality system that enables potential customers to see exactly how their future kitchen will look.

Kitchen

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Measurements are taken of the customer’s kitchen and then input to the machine. The customer can go into the gas showroom two hours after the measurements and wander through his or her prospective kitchen, opening drawers, wandering through at child-height to check the safety and trying out different worktop veneers. It runs on the Indigo graphics system. The company’s enthusiasm for its market shows in its results. First quarter net profits rose by 99% to $25.7m, which turnover up by almost a third to $301.6m. At the end of its fiscal year on June 30 it was in the black, after losses the previous year resulting from the MIPS Computer Systems Inc acquisition. If the company continues to establish its image as a graphics expert and if explores the embedded graphics market to the full, then this will be only the beginning.

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