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Intel salivates over virtual-world processing demands

Where users are frustrated with sluggish performance and primitive graphics, the chipmaker sees reasons customers will buy new PCs and servers.

Intel CTO Justin Rattner on Thursday showed off this 3D input device that includes 'haptic' force-feedback technology. Stephen Shankland/CNET Networks

SAN FRANCISCO--Most folks who try the Second Life virtual world grimace as the primitive 3D imagery drags its way onto their screens. Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner, though, smacks his lips with anticipation.

The chipmaker, always on the lookout for something that will give people a reason to buy a new PC, has reason to be excited about Second Life and its ilk. The technology, while still mostly for a fairly nerdy audience, has the potential to appeal to a broader audience than video games where overmuscled marines blow away aliens.

And just as significantly, Rattner said in a speech here Thursday at Intel Developer Forum, virtual worlds will stress out servers as well as PCs.

Intel has also eagerly anticipated some processor-taxing technologies that have come to fruition, including streaming audio and video, and some that haven't, such as speech recognition.

Rattner showed statistics that indicated a PC's processor bumps up to 20 percent utilization while browsing the Web, while its graphics processor doesn't even break above 1 percent.

Intel CTO Justin Rattner Stephen Shankland/CNET Networks

But running Second Life--even with today's coarse graphics--pushes those to 70 percent for the main processor and 35 to 70 percent for the graphics processor, he said. The Google Maps Web site and Google Earth software pose intermediate demands.

Running a virtual worlds server is vastly more computationally challenging, though, when compared with 2D Web sites and even massively multiplayer online games such as Eve Online. An Eve Online server can handle 34,420 users at a time, but Second Life maxes a server out with just 160 users. Network capacity also is much more heavily used.

In addition, virtual worlds exercise parts of a processor such as math calculation engines that are idle when handling Web sites.