Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Laptops turn into supercomputers

Ever thought you could wave to your computer and it would flip photos? Or it would sense your gestures and motions like a loyal butler? Ofer Sadka has travelled all the way from Herzeliya, Israel, to Bellevue, Washington, to demonstrate what the near future of computing is going to be like. Fittingly enough, his company is called Extreme Reality. Today's darlings like the iPad and smartphones could be passé sooner than you think. Just like Microsoft's DOS (operating system for computers in the 1980s) was passe yesterday, or PCs and mice are today, and traditional monitors will be tomorrow.

We are at the dawn of computers so intuitive that leave alone "understanding", they will know what you want without you having to explain. In the coming two decades, maybe sooner, we might have some kind of a headset we'll wear or chips embedded in our bodies that will make us the ultimate personal supercomputer ourselves. This means you can finally use that fairytale means of communication called telepathy in reality. When you bump into random people you can't remember meeting, you'll be spared the embarrassment as this ultimate computer will automatically search and enlighten you on the person's details relevant to you, in seconds. Thought control and sense response will finally become real. Smart lenses in your eyes' irises will project details on to intangible individual screens, which will come and go in front of you much like mirages in a desert, with the key difference that you/your PC will be in control. Extreme reality indeed. "The next three years will see major fundamental changes in how we compute," says Steve Kleynhans, VPclient computing at Gartner. Today, we are overwhelmed trying to sync up our exponentially-multiplying computers -- smartphones, tablets, notebooks, iPods, TVs, home electronics , baby monitors, navigation devices, health-tracking devices... "These devices will get incredibly capable. But they will increasingly be reduced just to portals for a common set of services and preferences that are specific to each individual," says Kleynhans. "We will move from having to adapt to the device, learning its peculiarities to having it learn and adapt to us." As we shuttle between our several computers, important baby steps are being taken in the form of cloud computing, adoption of finger-touch technology, iPads and so on. Last week, just minutes away from Microsoft's home in Redmond, Washington, another important step was taken. At its AMD Fusion Developer summit, the chip giant officially announced its new range of microprocessors for laptops. The new chips combine the central processing unit (CPU) and the graphical processing unit (GPU) on to one chip. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) calls this fusion an accelerated processing unit (APU). Thus, it makes superfast computing possible on consumer devices. What this means is that you can now affordably have supercomputers in your laptops. This, AMD says, could enable advances like all-day battery life, high-definition (HD) video streaming, and 3-D graphics so lifelike that they'd create hypnotically immersive video games.

Supercomputer of the 90s
Moore's law has been driving the history of computing advancement for several decades. This law dictates that semiconductor chips tend to double their capacity, hence increasing their computation power, every two years. Soon enough, engineers realised the power of having multiple cores within their CPUs, and we had another revolution advancing the computing power of consumer devices. In parallel, GPUs were introduced to perform highly graphical parallel computations, which was possibly the third major boost to computing advancement.

With AMD's bold launch of the APU, applications will be able to use immense power of both multi-core CPUs and GPU in the same chip, thereby bypassing costly data transfers. If applications are ready for producing mind-boggling features, the computation power is now available in the consumer's hand. At 400 giga flops (400 billion floating point operations per second), a laptop powered by AMD's APU could easily compare to a supercomputer of the 90s. The one being rolled out now, called Llano, will be superseded next year by Trinity, which will be 50% faster. Buckle up, then. "People want highly-interactive videos and HD graphics, awesome processing power and longer battery life in increasingly tiny devices without compromising on device performance. This gives them that," says Rick Bergman, senior VP and general manager products at AMD. "And soon, your PC will recognise you and adjust itself according to your preferences." Of course, it's not the only one. AMD claims its offering is a superior version to that of its archrival Intel's microprocessors.

Unlimited possibilities
The important thing here for lay consumers, though, is not the chip wars, but their implications. As everything floats up to the cloud, such microprocessors will fill devices with the power to process that data. According to Dan Hutcheson, CEO of semiconductor consultancy VLSI Research: "We already have disruptive technologies. It's a question of executing to an application." Kleynhans agrees. "It's what the devices can do for us that is important, not the devices themselves," he says. That's exactly why that iPad or that Android phone is so attractive. Apps are the heart and soul of handheld devices. But as we enter into the next wave of computing -- and our phones increasingly resemble our PCs, while our PCs look more and more like our phones -- they're going to become ubiquitous even to the traditional computers. So much so that Microsoft's Herb Sutter says: "The device will morph and become the app. The iPhone, for instance, is an app of the iPad." The apps on your own Llano-powered supercomputer-laptop could get pretty amazing. An incredible solar eclipse will occur in August 2017. And through the WorldWide Telescope , you can watch it exactly the way it will appear right here in your office or car or wherever you may be on Earth. The app will virtually relay to you in brilliant HD — and who knows maybe even in 3-D by then — what scientists would see through the omniscient Hubble telescope. Start-ups like Unlimited Realities are making apps that will take finger tapping to the next level, where icons will become jelly in your hands and wiggle around the screen. Making that PowerPoint presentation or writing that tough article on Word — in other words, doing work — will become fun. With numbers and alphabets floating like zerogravity jelly in space, learning will be as much fun for toddlers as for their parents teaching them.

Bring on the apps
The reason smartphones grew so fast is because of open platforms provided by the manufacturers, which means that anybody can build an app. Semiconductors has been a relatively traditional industry, but its behemoths like AMD and ARM are finally warming up to the virtues of open source paradigms like Open CL software. This attitude will lead to open standards and therefore , a wider adoption among application developers. This means that small app makers in far-flung areas like the New Zealand-based Unlimited Realities and any other developer can now bring futuristic dreams to our hands very quickly by building apps like they do for handheld devices . This is important because only the success of applications will decide whether we can fully harness the computing power that is given by hardware manufacturers. "We are now building the future of casual computing right here on what most of us use: Windows," says Unlimited Realities CTO David Brebner . Gesture controls will be available for gaming and other entertainment experiences like flipping channels. You simply wave to your computer, as you would to a genie, and it obeys. Because that's the point. Your computer is already metamorphosing into your personal genie. This supercomputer in a netbook makes things we only dreamed about possible," says Jem Davies, an ARM Fellow and VP-tech at the British chip giant. To create that incredibly intuitive computing experience, user interface (UI) is going to be key. "Eventually , any surface can become the interaction point," says AMD's Bergman . So you can choose to interact with whatever works for you --whether it's the iPad's finger-tapping technique, or Unlimited Realities' jelly-like wiggles, or even the almostancient mouse and sooner, gestures, voice controls, face-recognitions , and if you still remember how to write, handwriting-recognition . Your wish and the way it's granted are your supercomputer's command. Eventually, it could jolly well be telepathy anyway. "The whole 'one size fits all' mentality is already starting to disappear," says ARM's Davies. Another milestone to the future is seamless computing between our multiple computing devices. Apple's recently-launched iCloud, for instance , syncs Mac users' documents, contacts, calendar, music, email and more spread across their various Apple devices. But even small things we now take for granted, like remote bluetooth printing on your home printer from your phone or your tablet, point to the future. "With these new microprocessors , we're able to offer consumers a seamless computing experience across our multiple devices when and where they want," says Hewlett-Packard's (HP) director of business notebooks, Carol Hess-Nickels . HP's AMD A-series laptops — including some existing models like Pavillion, ProBook, G7, etc. — costing approximately $500 will be available by July. At the Llano launch in Science Fiction Museum Seattle, Hollywood filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (of Sin City and Spy Kids series fame), who is now working on a 4-D Spy Kids film, stressed on seamless movie quality experience . "It's gotta look the same in the theatre, on DVD, in digital print on online streaming and so on." Our supercomputers are here, but clearly it's up to app developers to give them superpowers.