Hollywood’s new tech star

The launch of a surprisingly sexy new HP workstation in Las Vegas last week marked a new phase in the rebirth of a venerable old brand, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK. 

When the best of Hollywood’s animation was showcased at an event in Las Vegas this week, it wasn’t a human being that got the biggest applause. The honour was reserved for a machine.

To be fair, the event was the launch of a new workstation – a powerful computer designed to do the heavy data lifting demanded by animated movies, financial data processing and the like. Workstations are usually large, clunky and ugly – but reliable.

Only Apple, with its all-in-one 27” screen iMac aimed at designers and the like, had managed to make a workstation sexy. Most other workstations, in particular those of market leader HP, came with a tall tower case and a separate, bulky monitor.

And then, at its Global Partner Conference on Tuesday, HP demonstrated a magic trick. Head of the workstations division Jim Zafarana stepped onto the stage to lift a large box that was conspicuously hiding a new product.

As he lifted it, the 3000 or so hardened computer sellers in the audience gasped. It was an all-in-one 27” screen workstation – and it was beautiful. Called the Z1, it has the processing power and features that make any ordinary PC – and the iMac equivalent – look needy. But it is also a cool, sleek device that will look good on any surface.

It comes with a feature least likely to be voted hi-tech accessory of the year: a handle for carrying it around. Many journalists present scoffed at the idea, but not Alex Timbs. He is head of information technology at Australian animation company Animal Logic, which made the first Happy Feet movie and contributed effects and animation to films like The Matrix and the Harry Potter series.

All of this work is carried out on hundreds of workstations.

“Something as simple as a handle on a workstation has an amazing impact,” said Timbs. “We move hardware very regularly. We do animation, visual effects and TV commercials, and people constantly move between the three.

“We have so many workstations, and the amount of time spent carrying them around, on the accidents, on people dropping it down stairs, or cutting themselves on the edges, makes this long overdue.”

Of course, that is a peripheral matter. The real question for Timbs and his colleagues is what the workstation does for their animation. During a demonstration of his company’s work, he explained that one single frame of high-definition movie animation took 114 man-hours to render on a computer. Without workstations, it would take several hundred years to complete an animated movie of the same quality being produced on these machines.

Afterwards, he acknowledged that Apple and HP workstations lived side-by-side in the movie industry. But this was not a partnership of equals.

“Apple is prevalent among our clients especially, and you might find a lot of producers on films will use a Mac, but we are tending to see these being replaced for high-level design work.  The only area where there is a push in the opposite direction is in personal computing devices, like iPads or iPhones.”

Zafarana also pushed the movie message, pointing out that both Hollywood and Bollywood relied on HP workstations. But workstations were also critical to a range of professions, from financial trading to doctors and radiologists.

A deeper implication lurks here: “In the developing world, the speed of the workstation decides how many patients can get CAT scans in one day,” said Zafarana. The Z1 is also aimed at mechanical and civil engineers, architects, professional photographers, graphic artists and even higher education.

“Workstation are being used in places they weren’t imagined just three or four years ago. For example, when you have a call centre for satellite TV, downtime can cost millions, so every person is doing mission critical work, and they want the reliability of a workstation. Who would have thought that a couple of years ago?”

The launch of the Z1 also symbolized the fact that HP, like other fading tech brands, was making a massive effort to reinvent itself. Like Nokia in smartphones, HP has also shown that it can be cool in its category once more.

*Article courtesy of Gadget

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up World Wide Worx and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee