Nvidia Moves From Gamers to Gunners With Intelligence, Defense Apps

NVidia's GPUs are well-known for making consumer software run faster, whether you're talking about games, Photoshop or SETI at Home. But now the company is providing processors with supercomputer-like qualities to solve much tougher problems.

I was sitting with two executives from Nvidia in the Truman Lounge of the National Press Club. On the screen in front of me was an almost unrecognizable view of a terrorist speedboat taken from the helmet-mounted camera of a Marine in a helicopter. Even the best-trained observer would be hard-pressed to count the four people in the boat. It was impossible to determine the origin of the craft or identify the weapons on the deck of the boat.

Then with the click of a mouse, the video became a solid, stable, high-definition view in which you could see every detail. Next, was a distant shot covering a vast field across which two people were walking slowly. A movement sensing package was supposed to be highlighting the figures and alerting the person monitoring the view.

But as is the case with surveillance cameras, you had to be watching closely to see the people at all. The movement sensing software was designed to detect the people in the image and alert the operator. But by the time it finally noticed, the people had moved almost fully across the screen. A change in the software and the figures were highlighted almost instantly.

The Nvidia people were showing me the results of improvements in imaging now in use by the military and the intelligence establishment, but rarely seen by the public. What the company has done is take itsGPUs (graphics processing units) and turned them into massively parallel processors. While these processors have been available as specialized workstations and servers, now they're being mounted in helmet cameras, remotely controlled drones, surveillance equipment and simulators. Effectively, Nvidia has taken thecore of a supercomputer and put it into the field.

The technology behind all of this is built into Nvidia's Tesla M2090 GPU Computing Modules, which are already being used in a variety of applications. The difference is that now the Tesla modules are being put into helmets and Humvees, drones, manned aircraft and other things the intelligence community really doesn't want us to know about. The result has been a remarkable transformation in remote imaging and remote sensing.

As the Nvidia folks described it to me, the biggest difference is that the initial processing takes place before the devices' sensors try to transmit the information back to wherever it's going.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...