XBox 360 graphics chip helps cardiac researchers

The Xbox 360 is many things: games console, media streamer, DVD player (and, in some cases, an expensive paperweight with a shiny red ring.) But now it’s got a new role: predicting heart problems.

Researchers in Britain are using the console’s graphics chip (pictured, courtesy of Flickr user avalonstar) to power parallel processing: splitting a task between multiple processors running simultaneously. They say it could be an extremely economical alternative to using clusters of computers.

Staff at the University of Warwick are investigating Cardiac arrhythmia, a group of conditions which causes abnormal electrical activity in the heart. It involves the way signals are carried to stimulate the myocardium muscle, which causes the heart to contract and expand, thus pumping blood.

The researchers need to be able to simulate the way these signals move around damaged cells. But the sheer number of possible combinations of routes means a single standard PC processor would take so long to cover every outcome as to make the task impractical.

Traditionally in such circumstances researchers would use a bank of networked computers to carry out the task. However, Dr Simon Scarle tells the BBC his team has been able to alter the code controlling the Xbox graphics processor, which is designed for the parallel processing needed to produce 3D graphics; the chip now calculates chemical levels in the modeled heart cells.

According to Scarle, the modification of the code was a major task, but technically quite simple and well worth the effort given the cost savings. He says using multiple Xbox chips is theoretically possible but they’d have to be connected through the internet rather than directly wired.

This isn’t the first time the powers of consoles have been harnessed for traditional computing tasks. Late last year, security researchers used a barrage of 200 PS3s to demonstrate that it was physically possible to crack the encryption system used by Verisign to verify secure websites.

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