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Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of Nvidia, started his graphics chip company in 1993 and is now the last man standing. Back then, no one could have predicted that PCs and game machines would spawn the powerful visual computing we have today. In a speech in San Jose, Calif., Huang talked about how video games and movie special effects are only the tip of the iceberg for visual computing, which encompasses everything from digital art to medical imaging. Huang is celebrating the growth of this ecosystem this week with his own new visual computing conference, dubbed Nvision 08. But it’s a turbulent time for Nvidia as the company struggles against competitors and its own product bugs. After his speech, Huang took questions on a wide range of topics at a press conference. I’ve blended questions from the general press Q&A with my own one-on-one questions in this edited transcript.
VB: I remember when I interviewed you 14 years ago. You talked about how your graphics chips could be used as “Windows accelerators.” It was like there was no other use for a 3-D chip.
JH: The real breakthrough for our industry came when we at Nvidia discovered this perspective: graphics is not just putting pixels up on the screen, but graphics can be a medium for artistic expression. That was when we decided we had to build programmable shaders (subprograms that add custom special effects to a 3-D scene). We didn’t want graphics to just all look the same. This medium has a real artistic element. To deal with that, we had to create an infinite palette. To do that in a computer architecture, we had to make it programmable. That was the insight that allowed us to see that programmable shaders were the future. We blindly believed in it and made everyone believe it. Now, when you say that computer graphics is an artistic medium, you don’t sound like a psycho. That notion isn’t more than 10 years old.
VB: A lot of people in the world get excited about computer-animated art in movies or video games. But you’re excited about digital still art.
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JH: If you think about what these people are doing, computer-generated art is part math, part imagination, and part programming. You have to know what the technology is capable of doing. It’s a complicated thing. It’s not for your average artist. Yet, as extraordinary as it is and as beautiful as it can be, it is really complicated to make worthy. Most people think all of the valuable things in life are expensive. But it’s hard to make a digital art piece expensive because it’s easy to replicate. The whole point is that it is written in software so that it can be generated flawlessly over and over again. There are complicated issues to solve with digital art. It doesn’t take away from how amazing digital art can be. I don’t know how artists even come up with the combination of skills to do it. I admire them for it and I hope that someone can figure out how to make it valuable.
VB: How long will it be before Jeff Han’s “multi-touch” display technology becomes a reality in daily computing?
JH: It’s in the iPhone. But as soon as we have a reasonable touch-display for desktop computers, it will be ready. The TouchSmart from HP is not bad but we need something better. The iPhone screen is wonderful but it’s hard to make it bigger. We need to find the technologies to make multi-touch more popular.
VB: In 3-D graphics, we saw 50 graphics companies emerge and then they all collapsed except for one, Nvidia (three if you count Advanced Micro Devices and Intel now). That was just in a decade. If you look at the pattern in the visual computing era over the next decade, what do you foresee?
JH: I think if I were starting a company, I wouldn’t start a graphics hardware company. I would start a software company. The first step is to create the enabling technology. The second step is to use that technology. At first, you create a company like Broadcom or Cisco for communications. But today, I would start some kind of Internet company. Using the graphics processors that we have created is a far more interesting thing to do now. In hardware, the cycle I see is that the mobile phone becomes our most important computing device. I’ve invested $500 million in our mobile business. I’m a year away from breakeven. But I enthusiastically invested in it because it’s the future. If anyone will disrupt the future of Nvidia, I want it to be me.
JH: How do you feel about competitors out there who are bigger than you are and are out to crush you?
VB: We don’t think about business that way. I never thought about crushing Cirrus Logic or crushing S3 or crushing somebody. It’s not a productive psychology. I don’t wake up in the morning and say to myself, “I feel really good I crushed that guy.” We like to think about how we can solve some of the most important problems in the world. The reason why we are such close partners with a lot of industry players is because of that. Why are scientists from the medical imaging industry here? Why are people from the oil and gas industry here? Nvidia doesn’t directly sell them stuff. We partner with them to solve their problems. That geeks us up in the morning. That gets us excited. We want to do that irrespective of what microprocessor you’ve chosen. The notion you would integrate or bundle so you can lock the other guy out is a weird idea. I don’t know who benefits, aside from yourself. And I’m not to sure it benefits you. Most of the exciting platforms in the world are the open ones. They’re the ones like Adobe Photoshop. If you notice, they are excluded from every operating system in the world. Microsoft has its own photo viewer and editor. So does Apple. But Adobe thrives because they solve interesting problems and create exciting products. We’re essentially positioned the same way. We are the Adobe of visual computing.
VB: You try to embrace enthusiast communities wherever you find them?
JH: It’s partly that. But it’s mostly solving the hard problems. Make them delightful to use. I think most of the people around the world today are struggling with editing photos and managing videos. They’re trying to manage their digital lives and they have a hard time. We can solve that with visual computing in a fabulous way. The guys that created Microsoft Photosynth found it takes hours to organize photos. It ought to be instantaneous. You can use Photosynth to sort things not just by time, but by space.
VB: Nvision 08 is kind of like your coming out party for visual computing. But it’s ill-timed in the sense that you’re having a tough quarter, financially. AMD is resurgent in graphics. You have the flaw in the chip set to deal with. How do you feel about the timing?
JH: I try to separate the two. We are more than vibrant. Sure, we had a bad quarter. There was a $200 million write-off associated with the quality of one of our products. We still have to build the industry. The work we are doing here is no less important than research and development. It’s no less important than building the next chip. If I am enthusiastically building the next chip, as you know that I am, then building the industry around it is also exciting. We can afford it. It’s very expensive. Many millions of dollars. But somebody needs to step up and define this industry, the same way that Cisco defined the networking industry. Somebody had to define the web. Our industry needed somebody to take a leadership role and we knew it had to be us.
VB: What are you doing about the flawed chips?
JH: The first person in the world that talked about the chip issue was me, right? I issued a press release and took a $200 million reserve. Our customers asked us why we did that. The reason is this. The logic is impeccable. It is just messy. We know there are failures associated with our chips. We know it has to do with the design of a notebook. Depending on the design of the thermal interface material, a heat pipe, the fan and its location near the CPU — depending on all that stuff — sometimes it will fail. Most of the notebooks are fine. Some have this problem. I tell the computer maker. Let’s fix that, no questions asked. I just sell a chip for $20 and might have to spend $200 to repair a notebook. No one has ever done that. The reason is I don’t want the consumers to have to fight in the process. Our customers believe it is the right thing now. Our competition wants to stir it up. We have a higher failure rate than we would like.
VB: Who is responsible?
JH: This industry standard process has been used to make billions of chips. It’s just in this unhappy circumstance where it can cause problems. I’m going to stand up and say I’m responsible. The (computer makers) are also standing up.
VB: Intel is launching Larrabee (sometime in 2009 or 2010) as its own graphics processor. What do you think of it?
JH: Larrabee hasn’t shipped. We can’t really talk about it. By the time that it ships, Nvidia’s technology will be much more advanced, it would be unfair to (compare it to our older technology.) There was a time when we had fixed-function graphics chips. But that’s the past. Maybe Intel is still talking about our past. They need to talk about our present and our future. The reason why Larrabee is important to Intel is that GPUs (graphics processor units, as Nvidia calls its graphics chips) are so important.
VB: You speak of the age of visual computing. Are you stepping into more universal computer chips and therefore competing with Intel?
JH: No. Our strategy is to support a whole line of processors. You will see our graphics chips in cars. In everything. ARM is important for mobile devices. PowerPC is really important for game consoles. Our strategy is to run on everything. We are not trying to take over general-purpose computing.
JH: Did you start Nvision 08 to compete with the Intel Developer Conference, especially now that IDF is no longer a place where you can get your message out because you are more like a direct competitor?
VB: Nvision is not that unambitious. Dean, that is just a non-objective. IDF is not that big. It’s for the PC ecosystem. Nvision is for the visual computing ecosystem. It includes the PC, but goes beyond it. It includes the end markets like gaming, film, industrial design. The number of press and analysts here is over 600. That’s more than IDF or WinHEC (Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Conference). We made it a point not to announce products here. This is for the ecosystem. We did the heavy lifting this time. But hopefully next year the whole industry does the lifting. This is our first step.
VB: Do you want Intel and AMD to be here next year?
JH: We invited them. We wanted this to be for everyone. Everybody’s attitude was that they wanted to see if we could pull it off. Next year they will want to be part of it.
VB: Will you still call it Nvision then?
JH: We could change the name. It doesn’t matter that much to me. Nvision isn’t a terrible name. We didn’t call it the Nvidia Developer Conference. (laughter).
VB: You have had this tension with Intel. How would you like to see this play out, in terms of the rhetoric from both companies, going forward?
JH: Obviously, Intel is a great company. They have extraordinary resources. In order for them to grow, they have to capture more share of the platform. They obviously identified graphics as a growth area. They have also found the graphics chip is an area that is too important to ignore. Our computing experience is increasingly visual. It’s what we see. Graphics chips are increasingly programmable. They can’t ignore these trends and they know that. They have many reasons to invest in graphics. Our perspective is that we have competed with large companies and small ones. Our focus is still the same. We have to find value. It’s like Adobe. If the editing software that comes with the operating system is good enough, they’re in trouble. This will continue to play out. Intel has a platform. We are a vertical player. We hope they respect our desire to advance visual computing and solve deep problems. If customers desire our products, we hope that Intel will be open enough to support that.
VB: From time to time, people wonder whether graphics has run its course. They point at the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 and note how they’re not beating the Nintendo Wii. Microsoft and Sony have both said they don’t plan to introduce new machines anytime soon. People say that means that consumers don’t value the best graphics. So is graphics done?
JH: I think the high-end video game console space used to have just one player. Now it has two. The combination of those two is still a very large market and so high-end game consoles are still very successful. There is no evidence that they’re not collectively doing well. I think there is no evidence that gaming isn’t doing well. Nintendo is doing extraordinarily well because they are discovering a new market. It isn’t about gamers wanting less. It’s about new gamers who had nothing before and now want more. I think that what Nintendo is doing is going to be incredibly helpful in a few years. I see no evidence the high-end gaming market is slowing.
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