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The 'Rochester Cube': CPUs move into the third dimension

Scientists at the University of Rochester have created what they say is the first true 3D processor--and it's running at 1.4GHz.

Scientists at the University of Rochester have created what they say is the first true 3D processor--and it's running at 1.4GHz.

Unlike past attempts at 3D processors, which were simply a number of processors stacked on top of one another, the "Rochester Cube," as it is being called, was designed from the ground up to optimize all key-processing functions vertically, in the same way ordinary chips optimize functions horizontally.

So while there are other 3D chips, this design is supposedly the first to integrate each layer in a seamless and efficient way.

Hopefully, CPUs won't ever get this powerful.Photo by Paramount Pictures

Eby Friedman, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rochester, says many in the integrated-circuit industry are predicting that miniaturization will reach its limit, at which point it will be impossible to pack more chips next to each other and the capabilities of future processors will thus be hindered. The solution? Expand into the third dimension, stacking transistors on top of each other.

Vertical expansion will not come without its difficulties, however. The key, according to Friedman, is to design a 3D chip where the multiple layers interact as if they were one. He equates it to designing a traffic system for the entire United States and then layering two more United States above the first and somehow getting any bit of traffic from either level to its destination on another level, while still coordinating the traffic of millions of other drivers.

"Complicate that by changing the two United States layers to something like China and India, where the driving laws and roads are quite different," he adds, "and the complexity and challenge of designing a single control system to work in any chip begins to become apparent."

According to Friedman, "This is the way computing is going to have to be done in the future. When the chips are flush against each other, they can do things you could never do with a regular 2D chip."

My problem with the next big thing technology is that I get burned far too often. Remember how it turned out to be the Segway? Well, I'm still waiting for "cities to be redesigned" around that.

If what the Rochester scientists are saying is true, however, there is vast potential here for the future of computing power. Friedman says the 3D chip is essentially an entire circuit board folded up into a tiny package. So the chips inside something like an iPod could be compacted to a tenth their current size with 10 times the speed.

Sounds nice, but until I see major chipmakers making strides to put these in real products, I won't hold my breath.