The promise of cinematic computing will get a little closer to reality with the availability of new graphics chips from industry leaders Nvidia and ATI Technologies over the coming weeks. The processors are Mac OS X compatible, but availability of standalone versions for Macs is unknown.

Nvidia's GeForce 6800 chips were formally unveiled Tuesday night in San Francisco at a launch event. They include Microsoft's DirectX 9.0 Shader Model 3.0 feature set, Nvidia said. ATI is expected to release its own chips that will rival Nvidia's later this month.

The DirectX 9.0 technology is a collection of APIs (application programming interfaces) that let games and other multimedia programs take advantage of the full capability of advanced graphics chips. Shader Model 3.0 will allow graphics designers to realistically portray human characteristics such as flesh tone to create some of the most compelling video games and movies yet, said Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research in Tiburon, California.

"If the graphics are good enough, you don't see the graphics. You get directly involved in the story," Peddie said.

Stepping stone The new chips are a stepping stone on the path to cinematic computing, or the ability to create sophisticated images on an everyday PC. Movie developers for projects such as "Finding Nemo" currently require expensive high-performance graphics workstations to create the images for the movie.

Nvidia added GDDR3 (graphics double data rate) memory and additional floating-point engines to the new generation of graphics chips to reach that level of performance, the company said. It also added an on-chip video processor as a dedicated video engine for encoding and decoding MPEG video.

"Nvidia has vastly improved performance over the GeForce FX series with the GeForce 6 series GPU (graphics processor unit)," wrote Brent Justice, an editor with the hardware enthusiast Web site Hard OCP, in a review of the technology posted on that site.

The new generation of graphics processors are powerful enough to be used as supercomputer processors, Peddie said. Some universities and laboratories are using older generations of graphics chips in supercomputing clusters due to their superior number-crunching ability, he said.

Game progress Most users who don't play PC games have no need for that level of performance, but the PC gaming community is willing to pay top dollar for advances in graphics technology that will improve the performance of their gaming experience. Gamers also tend to influence the purchasing decisions of friends and family members who are less tech-savvy, so companies like Nvidia and ATI compete ferociously for the top spot in the graphics processor market.

Nvidia and ATI also compete to have their technology included in the console gaming market. Nvidia had been the supplier for Microsoft's Xbox console, but ATI recently won a contract to supply the chips for the next-generation of that platform. The two companies are jousting to see which chip will wind up in Sony's PlayStation 3.