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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
GIRL POWERED: The Swedish team of gamers who call themselves 'MYM' (as in 'Meet Your Maker') blast away in the 'Counter-Strike for Girls' bracket Monday at NVISION.

We Got Game

Top gamers pour in from all over the world as NVISION makes San Jose the mecca of visual computing

By Gary Singh

ON A tranquil Sunday evening, about 50 gamers from around the world congregate in front of the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts to kick off the definitive international competition for computer games—the Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC). In coming days, hundreds more participants from more than 50 countries will arrive for the tournament, just one of many events taking place during NVISION08, an interdisciplinary mega-event devoted to visual computing.

Staged by Santa Clara's NVIDIA, the worldwide grand poobah of graphics processor chips, NVISION08 is a cross-pollination of artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, technologists and celebrities all sharing a common passion for visual computing.

The ESWC itself has been around for five years, held in Paris. But since NVISION08 is debuting here in Silicon Valley, the games have moved across the pond and legions of world-renowned gaming teams are descending upon San Jose to battle each other in games like Counter-Strike, Warcraft 3, Quake and Trackmania. There's even a Counter-Strike for Girls bracket.

Mingling among the crowd, I overhear many languages, from French and Arabic to Spanish, Korean, German and Japanese. The beers are flowing, and as executives take the stage to speak, cameramen begin to infiltrate the audience and film the gamers as they socialize. Apparently, these folks are known throughout the international gaming universe. And hardly any of them are over 20 years of age.

Alain Tiquet, NVIDIA's head honcho for European marketing, takes the stage. "This is the most accomplished event we've ever done," he enthuses in French-accented English. "Champions, welcome to California. We could not do NVISION without the best gamers on the planet. And the best gamers are right here."

The next day saw NVISION08 explode out of the starting gate with plethora of simultaneous goings-on and the only survival mechanism this besieged correspondent could manage was to simply take it all in. Migrate. Explore. Experience.

By 7:45am, 240 gamers were already lined up outside the convention center, many with their own machines, waiting to get into the GeForce LAN, a legendary online hoedown where thousands of gamers all over the world simultaneously join in over networks. I'm told that the first group of diehards had arrived at 1am.

Dozens of NVISION08 staff members circulate about, all wearing lime green, the official hue of the event. To the cheers of those queued up, an employee of the convention center fills the fountain with a bucket of green food coloring, and away we go.

Back at the Center for Performing the Arts, actress and Playboy model Tricia Helfer, who plays Cylon #6 on TV's Battlestar Galactica, is autographing green NVISION08

T-shirts for the masses outside. Helfer is one of a handful of celebs making an appearance and, surprisingly, she doesn't play the star that much at all. It brought back vivid memories of when legendary scream queen Brinke Stevens, star of Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama, appeared at a San Jose horror convention 17 years ago.

As with any conference, the keynote address functions as the real kickoff, with the corporate bigwigs waxing poetic about how the next round of their products will revolutionize people's lives. A full house waited in anticipation of NVIDIA's co-founder, president and CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang. But the event couldn't begin without a quick appearance from San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who thanked everyone for being in San Jose and then asked the crowd to leave town broke when they're done.

"Spend all your money here," he said. He then encouraged aspiring entrepreneurs in the crowd to start their companies within San Jose city limits. "One of you is going to start the next NVIDIA and the next Adobe, and we want you to do it here."

When Huang emerged onstage, he called Reed out for blatantly inciting future competition and dissuaded any such thing. "If there's an NVIDIA out there, don't do it," he said. "We don't care where you don't do it, just don't do it. It's already been done."

Huang and others then proceeded to casually yak about some pretty nifty technology that waits just around the corner. For example, in what's stylishly termed as the "dimensionalization of displays," Huang showed examples of GeForce stereoscopic 3D hardware and software that has never been shown publicly before. The gamer dons black 3D shutter glasses that are synched with the particular monitor and is able to play the game completely in stereoscopic 3-D with a true sensation of depth. Thus, the characters in the game look like they're jumping out of the monitor and right into your lap. Eventually, experts suggest, computer displays will advance enough to where the glasses aren't needed any more. They hope and believe that the dimensionalization of displays will revolutionize the industry in the same way that adding color originally did for images in the old days.

Taehoon Kim, co-founder of South Korea's Nurien Software, took the stage next and showed off his company's new system, which merges massive multiplayer online (MMO) games with social networking ideologies. That is, instead of a static page with a photo, a la Facebook, one builds an entire 3-D avatar from scratch, manipulates the facial and body features in realtime, and chooses everything down to the type of fabric one's socks are made out of. So instead of merely visiting a MySpace friend's page and leaving comments, the visitor's homemade character can go on over to the homemade environment the friend has made for herself, and then they can really hang out. According to Kim, it's already the rage in Korea, where the whole country is hardwired anyway.

Back at the Convention Center, where my own hardwires began to run out, I infiltrated the first round of the Electronic Sports World Cup and witnessed the Chinese women's team take on the Americans at Counter-Strike. The announcer, a French dude, was making comparisons to the Olympics and commenting on how much he dug one of the cute Chinese girls' nicknames.

Much more was to come at NVISION08, including professional sessions for the programmers and even more celebrities. But my character's time was up.

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