by Tony Kontzer

The idea of ecosystems is a well-established one in the technology world, with a constantly growing lineup of companies that can best be described as hubs. Examples are everywhere: Amazon has become a retail and cloud computing hub for smaller companies looking to leverage its technology investments; Google is a hub for businesses that want to incorporate search but don’t want to build search capabilities themselves; and Salesforce.com is an emerging cloud computing hub for companies that don’t want to develop their own applications.

GTC 2010

Taking a cue from those companies, NVIDIA has in recent years been working to establish its own ecosystem for companies trying to further the capabilities of GPU technology. The idea is to promote the myriad ways in which GPUs are used in order to inspire other small companies to tap the power of the GPU for their own businesses.

On Wednesday, the Emerging Companies Summit portion of the GPU Technology Conference kicked off, showcasing a few of the startups that are innovating with GPUs and are willing to share their experiences. Jeff Herbst, NVIDIA's VP of business development, made no bones about the fact that building an ecosystem of startups has taken on added importance in a sluggish economy where venture funds are difficult to raise and companies are opting to leverage the investments of others rather than repeating them.

One of the companies NVIDIA highlighted was Universal Robotics, which builds robots that can learn and think, allowing them to perform such functions as sorting packages. GPU technology is essentially serving as the hippocampus that allows the company’s robots to determine their actions based on input from 50 different channels, from infrared to vision to touch. It’s a complex undertaking that requires massive parallel computing, a natural setting for GPUs, said David Peters, founder and CEO.

Elsewhere, OptiTex is tapping GPUs in an effort to revolutionize online clothes shopping. The company develops pattern-making software and 3D cloth simulation programs that together make it possible to simulate a person wearing garments and walking around, thus setting the stage for online shoppers to actually be able to see an approximation of what various clothing items will look like on their bodies.

Joram Burg, president of OptiTex USA, says the company plans to work with game developers and moviemakers on ways to put its technology to use in those arenas, and he foresees consumers soon being able to place images of their own heads on top of simulation models for added personalization.  “That’s where the technology is taking us,” he said.

On the medical front, a French company called Useful Progress, led by founder Sylvain Ordureau, has been tapping the power of GPUs to create unprecedented 3D models of the human internal anatomy, which the company hopes will enable breakthroughs in medical science.

NVIDIA, meanwhile, is hopeful that by sharing the stories of some of its cutting edge customers, it will inspire others to innovate similarly around the GPU—or, in the spirit of a true ecosystem, piggyback on the innovation that’s already taken place.