The same supercomputing technology used to model nuclear weapons may also be used to simulate something equally complex, as far as Hollywood animators are concerned: a room full of extras.
IBM is now one year away from building the 65,000-node Blue Gene/L machine for the Lawrence Livermore National Labs in the US. With the underlying processor and system design for Blue Gene now essentially completed, IBM's attention is turning to software, according to the company, and in the last few months IBM has begun talking to users and software developers in a variety of industries to see where else Blue Gene's unique design may apply.
"We're asking ourselves new types of questions: Is Blue Gene capable of doing animation?" said Dave Turek, vice president of Deep Computing at IBM.
Already, Threshold Digital Research Labs, a digital animation company based in Santa Monica, California, has expressed interest.
"We're very, very interested in anything that increases the amount of horsepower we can put on a particular project," said George Johnsen, Threshold's Chief Animation and Technical Officer.
"We have tremendous interest from the outside world to try and get access to the machine," said Alan Gara, chief architect of Blue Gene. "If we really opened up the machine and said, 'Go ahead, everyone can have access to it,' we would be getting many more people. We're kind of throttling them back just because we can't handle them all right now."
By early 2005, when Lawrence Livermore's $100 million (around £55 million) Blue Gene system is up and running, it should easily eclipse Japan's 36-teraflop Earth Simulator – currently the world’s fastest computer - with an estimated maximum performance of more than 200 teraflops, Gara said. A teraflop is one trillion mathematical operations per second.
Blue Gene uses specially manufactured 700MHz PowerPC processors that are built with what IBM calls a "system on chip" design that is intended to consume minimal power. Blue Gene systems themselves are built into special racks that are tilted to maximize cooling efficiency.
Blue Gene's raw performance could have a dramatic effect on digital studios, which are constantly striving to outdo each other with animated effects, said Threshold's Johnsen. While studios may now be able conjure realistic-looking characters, such as the computer-generated Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, animating something that looks like a living human is a much more difficult.
"You know what the hard part is?" Johnsen asked. "A room full of regular folks. That's a hard challenge. I can make Gollums all day. Everybody can. I can give you dinosaurs, I can give you talking cars. All of that stuff is relatively easy with the current technology. But if I want to give you a human, that's a hard job. The audience is very sophisticated. They know what humans look like."