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  • NVIDIA on a Tear at CES

    Jen-Hsun Huang, CEO of NVIDIA, gave the opening keynote at CES this year. That’s hardly surprising. From a company that operated on the fringes of mainstream awareness (those guys that do gamer graphics), they finished 2016 as the top-performing company in the S&P 500, returning revenue growth of 35% (forecast). That’s startup growth and the same rate at which Amazon Web Services (the mighty Amazon cloud) is growing. Pretty impressive for a semiconductor company. And they are earning it. From the keynote alone, it’s obvious they are putting the same blistering level of innovation into their products that you’ll see at any of the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google/Alphabet) companies.

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    Jen-Hsun kicked off with the PC gaming sector which remains very important to NVIDIA. This business has doubled in the last 5 years to $31B and NVIDIA provides the dominant game platform today, as represented by GeForce. They’re obviously very proud of this but they’re looking to how they can grow it further. There are a few hundred million serious gamers today, but most PC/Mac users (around a billion) play games at some level, but can’t access the more advanced games and multi-player options because they don’t have the hardware. So NVIDIA has put GeForce for gaming in the cloud, called GeForce NOW, making it accessible to all users with an Internet connection. This apparently took some serious work to preserve the performance and low latency you expect in desktop gaming. Access will be available in March for early users and will be offered on-demand at $25 for 20 hours of play. Now you see part of why these guys are doing well – they’re expanding their market to casual users, from whom they’ll make money, and at least some of those casual users will like it so much they invest in their own GeForce-enabled desktop systems.

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    NVIDIA has also partnered with Google on Shield, their Android-based streaming device (same concept as Roku, AppleTV, etc). It serves up all the usual options – Netflix, Hulu and (unlike AppleTV) Amazon video and, of course, gaming - games can stream from their GeForce systems to the TV or from GeForce NOW in the cloud. More interestingly (for me, I’m not much of a gamer), Shield is tying in Google Assistant, providing natural speech-control of the TV but also home automation, so you have a central hub for voice-activated (including TV) control of any smart home device. To make this a through-house ambient capability they also are introducing the NIVDIA Spot, a small AI microphone (with lots of cool tech) which plugs into a wall socket and communicates with the hub, so from anywhere in the house you can say “OK Google …” and have the Google Assistant respond. (I have to believe NVIDIA is talking with Amazon about Echo integration, though that didn’t come up in the keynote.) Shield starts at $199 and SPOTs are separately priced ($50 each I hear).

    Then of course there’s NVIDIA’s role in the automotive industry, which is already significant. This isn’t just about graphics, it’s also in a very big way about AI. Jen-Hsun makes the point that GPUs were a big part of what transformed AI from an academic backwater into a major industry, especially in deep learning. He calls GPUs the “big bang” of AI. Maybe I’d be more of a geek and call it the “Cambrian Explosion” (there was AI around before GPUs, it was just evolving slowly). Either way, NVIDIA saw this opportunity and ran with it – their solutions are a dominant platform in this field.

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    At the show, Jen-Hsun introduced Their Xavier AI Car Supercomputer – an 8 core ARM64 CPU, a 512 core Volta GPU, the board fuses sensor information, connects to CANs and to HD maps, is designed to ASIL-D and delivers 30 Tops in 30W. NVIDIA created a car they call BB8 (for Star Wars fans) which can drive autonomously given voice directions. The example they showed was “Take me to Starbucks in San Mateo”, from which it figured out the best direction and headed out. Interestingly, they see this more as a co-pilot (they call it AI CoPilot) than a fully autonomous intelligence – BB8 hands over control to the driver whenever it gets to situations it feels it can’t handle.

    It also pays attention to the driver, looking for tiredness, inattention, perhaps having had a few too many drinks, and can warn the driver (or possibly take corrective action?). Even more interesting, it does this through facial recognition on the driver and gaze tracking. It also does lip-reading with 95% accuracy (they claim), much better than human experts. Why? Because cars can be noisy environments (music, traffic, passengers), so you want to pay special attention to driver commands, even when voice can't get through.

    Finally, Jen-Hsun announced new automotive partnerships. They have added ZF as partner (5th largest automotive electronics supplier), and Bosch (#1 tech supplier to the car industry) has announced a production drive computer partnered with NVIDIA. And they have announced a new partnership with Audi (my favorite car) to build a next generation AI car by 2020. In fact, Audi was demoing a Q7 driving itself in a parking lot at CES after just 4 days of training. All of which reinforced that cars are still in many ways our favorite consumer devices, which is why CES is becoming as much of a car show as an electronics show.

    There’s a lot of detail I skipped here, such as Shield supporting 4K and HDR. You’ll have to watch the video HERE to get the full keynote. I was really impressed. This is a semiconductor company that has reinvented itself to play right alongside the consumer technology leaders of today, not just as an “NVIDIA inside” but in many cases as a very visible part of our consumer experience. Other semis should take note. NVIDIA has shown that there is still a path to greatness in hardware.

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