For those of us who frittered our formative years away blasting blocky space invaders, video games today can widen the eyes and slacken the jaw. The primitive pixelated ape of Donkey Kong has evolved into a three-dimensional King Kong of startling detail. Some newer Xbox 360 games render their lead characters from an intricate mesh of more than 20,000 polygons, each tiny patch drawn dozens of times a second with its own subtle texture, shading and gloss.

Beyond the booming game industry, the evolution of graphics has lifted interactive software for design, engineering, architecture, medical imaging and scientific visualization to new heights of performance. Much of the credit belongs to advances in graphics processing units (GPUs), the microchips at the heart of computer video cards that transform 3-D scenes into 2-D frames at speeds faster than a trigger twitch. As the rendering capabilities of GPUs soared, so did the revenues of ATI, NVIDIA and Intel, which make the most popular models.