SAN JOSE, California (AFP) — Lifelike graphics are breaking free of elite computer games and spreading throughout society in what industry insiders proclaim is the dawning of a "visual computing era."
Astronauts, film makers and celebrities joined software savants, engineers and gamers in the heart of Silicon Valley this week for a first-ever NVision conference devoted to computer imagery advances changing the way people and machines interact.
"Visual computing is transforming the videogame industry; transforming the film industry, and has all kinds of potential for how we view real-time television," NVIDIA co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang told those gathered at the event.
"We solve some of the most challenging problems for more and more companies around the world. Let the era of visual computing begin."
Gamers dueled for three days in a cavernous room in the San Jose Convention Center while entrepreneurs showed how graphics breakthroughs are shining in other fields.
Car makers are exploring letting potential buyers not only customize automobiles with graphics software but go on virtual test drives.
Graphics processing underpins financial modeling and weather forecasting.
Israel-based Optitex demonstrated software that replicates fabrics so realistically that clothing designers can see what fashions will look and act like on people before garments are made.
Optitex's animation software is being eyed by Hollywood film makers.
Dassault Systemes puts 3D computer-assisted design to work virtually constructing passenger jets, buildings and more.
"Three-D should be a new way for us to dream and design the future of our world," The French company's chief executive Bernard Charles said at NVision.
"It will impact everything we do: education, science, talking to each other ... of course games."
He predicts that lifelike graphics combined with feedback from online communities will let people influence how products are designed, sold and even how "green" they are.
Charles maintains computer simulations will be so realistic that virtual activities will mirror physical experiences.
Simulators already play an important part in training for space shuttle missions, according to former US astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman shuttle commander.
"When you fly the actual mission you feel like you are in a simulator," Collins said. "We really can't do our job without the good visual graphics that we get."
The world of visual computing is "inescapable," said Chris Malachowsky, a co-founder of NVIDIA, a California firm renowned for high-end graphics processing cards for computers.
"We are being presented with displays everywhere," Malachowsky told AFP. "It used to be about the computing part, but the emphasis is shifting. It is not so much about the computation but how it is presented and seen by people."
The rising tide of digital videos, photos, films and television shows on the Internet is lifting the status of graphics chips, cards, and software and strengthening a trend to "unflatten" displays with 3D imagery.
Malachowsky spoke of using visual computing power to develop new medicines or provide doctors with real-time 3D images of patients' organs.
"They will be able to recreate scan data so fast you could see your own heart beating," Malachowsky said.
"This is being subsidized by all these kids out there playing games."
Perceptive Pixel founder Jeff Han, referred to by some as "the father of touch screen" computing, maintains graphics opens up user interface control possibilities that could render a "mouse" obsolete.
Han demonstrated touch-screen technology that lets several people simultaneously manipulate applications and files on a single large monitor.
"It's not personal computing anymore," Han said. "It's visual computing."
Battlestar Galactica bombshell Tricia Helfer praised computer animation innovations that enable the science fiction television series to rivet viewers.
Helfer plays a part-machine, part-organic Cylon character called "Number Six" that has turned on its creators.
"It's a bit threatening," Helfer said of technology promising to one day make animated characters indistinguishable from real actors.
"But the advantages and uses of it are amazing, but it is something we are going to have to get used to."