From Pentiums to Audis: A brief evolution of computer 3D graphics

Posted by
Nvidia’s developer software lets car designers draft their dream dash using sophisticated 3D rendering.

It’s weird to think of cars requiring 3D accelerator chips to run. As a once-avid player of computer racing games, I relied on these graphic processing units (aka GPUs) to render my favorite exotic cars in splendid detail many years before I ever turned a real steering wheel. Now they’re almost mandatory to run camera-based safety equipment, infotainment displays and digital instrument panels in the supercomputers that are modern cars. And I still find it odd that Nvidia, the same semiconductor manufacturer that powers my 512MB GeForce card inside my desktop, is required to run an Audi A6.

To understand why computer hardware companies have become auto suppliers, brace yourself for some nerdy retro computer talk. In the mid-90s, 3D graphics was still a relatively new concept for home computers. The norm was 2D graphics, a bare-minimum setup for displaying Microsoft Office, Solitaire and those funky “After Dark” screen savers with the flying toasters. Windows 95 had just come out and promised a revolution in processing speed, notably with video, and support for faster Pentium processors. But most computers were still shipping with paltry 2D graphics cards that had all the rendering performance of a Super Nintendo. You could get 3D arcade performance from a standalone console like the latest Nintendo 64, or you could buy a dedicated 3D graphics card made by 3Dfx Interactive. I did both.


At this time, Nvidia was a small supplier of office-grade graphics cards and demonstrated little experience in proper 3D. 3Dfx, by comparison, was dominating the market with its Voodoo and Voodoo 2 cards. Nearly every game supported the company’s proprietary API (application programming interface), and the visuals were damn impressive. After I got a 12MB STB BlackMagic 3D with a Voodoo 2 chipset, I couldn’t believe how much better “Need for Speed” looked on my mom’s 120-MHz Gateway. The shading, reflections, smoothness and virtual effects like blowing leaves were eye candy for a young car enthusiast. The technology was so ahead of its time that it outperformed other cards for years, not months, as Nvidia eventually caught up and bought out 3Dfx in 2000 when it declared bankruptcy (and 3Dfx had earlier bought out STB). At this time in the early 2000s, with 3Dfx’s incredible expertise behind it, Nvidia cemented its place as a leader in mainstream graphics cards as prices dwindled and average home PCs became full-blown arcade systems. Now, when it comes to buying a graphics card, I wouldn’t think of anything but Nvidia.

Neither, apparently, can Audi, which is tapping Nvidia’s Tegra K1 chipset for its full-width, customizable digital instrument panel used on the upcoming Audi TT, R8 and its ultimate alter-ego, the Lamborghini Huracan. The chipset uses a 192-core GPU and a quad-core CPU featured on some of the leading supercomputers. In essence, it makes pretty, very detailed things appear and animate very quickly, without lag or those awful jagged artifacts (aliasing, in geek speak) we once accepted as par in computer graphics. Nvidia even offers its own turnkey development kit for automakers to design the next great digital dash. Hop into a new Audi with Google Earth, and you’ll see it at work. Or, you can pore into the 17-inch touchscreen on the Tesla Model S, an interface that Nvidia both designed and powered with its hardware. All said, Nvidia chips are inside 6.2 million cars and counting from 19 brands, including Porsche, Bentley, Aston Martin, Fiat, BMW and Hyundai.

Nvidia also hopes to sell its speed and visual acuity by pairing with camera-based safety systems like collision alerts, pedestrian detection, automatic braking, lane departure and 360-degree parking cameras. Since these systems capture so much data and need to sort through it to detect an impending danger — and then send those alerts to a head-up display or the instrument panel —  a fast graphics processor is mandatory. For a little company that once relied on PCs and computer games, this is pretty cool to watch Nvidia in this space. Only sometimes, as an adult surrounded by so much visual stimuli inside cars like the Mercedes S-Class, I need to remind myself that I’m not in a simulator.

Clifford Atiyeh

Clifford Atiyeh

Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own. Based in Connecticut, he writes for BestRide, Car and Driver, The Boston Globe and other publications.