|Fate||Bankrupt, most assets bought by Nvidia, fate of remaining assets unknown.|
|Headquarters||San Jose, California, USA|
|Ross Smith, Scott Sellers, Gary Tarolli|
|Products||Voodoo Graphics Series|
3dfx Interactive was a company headquartered in San Jose, California that specialized in the manufacturing of 3D graphics processing units and, later, graphics cards. It was a pioneer in the field from the late 1990s until 2000.
The company's flagship product was the Voodoo Graphics, an add-in card that accelerated 3D graphics. The hardware only accelerated 3D rendering, relying on the PC's current video card for 2D support. Despite this limitation, the Voodoo Graphics and its follow-up Voodoo2 were popular, and it became standard for 3D games to offer support for the company's Glide API.
3dfx rapidly declined beginning in the late 1990s and was acquired by Nvidia mostly for intellectual property rights before going bankrupt in 2002.
Founded in 1994 by Jeff Smith, Phil Smith, and Gary Tarolli and Scott Sellers (all SGI alumni) with backing from Gordie Campbell's TechFarm, 3dfx released its Voodoo Graphics chip in 1996. The company only manufactured the chips and some reference boards, and initially did not sell any product to consumers; rather, it acted as an OEM supplier for graphics card companies, which designed, manufactured, marketed, and sold their own graphics cards including the Voodoo chipset.
3dfx gained initial fame in the arcade market. The first arcade machine that 3Dfx Voodoo Graphics hardware was used in was ICE Home Run Derby, a game released in 1996. Later that year it was featured in more popular titles, such as Atari's San Francisco Rush and Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey.
Voodoo Graphics PCI
Towards the end of 1996, the cost of EDO DRAM dropped significantly and 3Dfx was able to enter the consumer PC hardware market with aggressive pricing compared to the few previous 3D graphics solutions for computers. Prior to affordable 3D hardware, games such as Doom and Quake had compelled video game players to move from their 80386s to 80486s, and then to the Pentium.
A typical Voodoo Graphics PCI expansion card consisted of a DAC, a frame buffer processor and a texture mapping unit, along with 4 MB of EDO DRAM. The RAM and graphics processors operate at 50 MHz. It provided only 3D acceleration and as such the computer also needed a traditional video controller for conventional 2D software. A pass-through VGA cable daisy-chained the video controller to the Voodoo, which was itself connected to the monitor. The method used to engage the Voodoo's output circuitry varied between cards, with some using mechanical relays while others utilized purely electronic components. The mechanical relays emitted an audible "clicking" sound when they engaged and disengaged.
The Voodoo's primary competition was from PowerVR and Rendition. PowerVR produced a similar 3D-only add-on card with capable 3D support, although it was not comparable to Voodoo Graphics in either image quality or performance. 3Dfx saw intense competition in the market from cards that offered the combination of 2D and 3D acceleration. While these cards, such as Matrox Mystique, S3 ViRGE and ATI 3D Rage, offered inferior 3D acceleration, their lower cost and simplicity often appealed to OEM system builders. Rendition's Vérité V1000 was an integrated (3D+VGA) single-chip solution, but it did not have comparable 3D performance, and its 2D capabilities were considered merely adequate relative to other 2D cards of the time.
Originally developed for arcade games that included non-Intel architectures, Glide was created to handle error prone tasks like chip initialization for the programmer, but implemented nothing more than what the Voodoo hardware was directly capable of. This strategy differed from that of other 3D APIs of the era (Direct3D, OpenGL, and QuickDraw 3D), which hid low-level hardware details behind an "abstraction layer", with the goal of providing application developers a standard, hardware-neutral interface.
The advantage of an abstraction layer is that game developers save programming effort and gain flexibility by writing their 3D rendering code once, for a single API, and the abstraction layer allows it to run on hardware from multiple manufacturers. This advantage is still in place today. However, in the early days of the 3D graphics card, Direct3D and OpenGL implementations were either non-existent or, at minimum, substantially less mature than today, and computers were much slower and had less memory. The abstraction layers' overhead crippled performance in practice. 3dfx had therefore created a strong advantage for itself by aggressively promoting Glide, which was designed specifically around the Voodoo hardware, and therefore did not suffer from the performance hit of a higher level abstraction layer.
While there were many games that used Glide, the killer application for Voodoo Graphics was the MiniGL driver developed to allow hardware acceleration of the game Quake by id Software. MiniGL implemented only the subset of OpenGL used by Quake.
By 2000, the improved performance of Direct3D and OpenGL on the average personal computer, coupled with the huge variety of new 3D cards on the market, the widespread support of these standard APIs by the game developer community and the closure of 3dfx, made Glide obsolete.
In August 1997, 3dfx released the Voodoo Rush chipset, combining a Voodoo chip with a 2D chip that lay on the same circuit board, eliminating the need for a separate VGA card. Most cards were built with an Alliance Semiconductor AT25/AT3D 2D component, but there were some built with a Macronix chip and there were initial plans to partner with Trident but no such boards were ever marketed.
The Rush had the same specifications as Voodoo Graphics but did not perform as well because the Rush chipset had to share memory bandwidth with the CRTC of the 2D chip. Furthermore, the Rush chipset was not directly present on the PCI bus but had to be programmed through linked registers of the 2D chip. Like the Voodoo Graphics, there was no interrupt mechanism, so the driver had to poll the Rush in order to determine whether a command had completed or not; the indirection through the 2D component added significant overhead here and tended to back up traffic on the PCI interface. The typical performance hit was around 10% compared to Voodoo Graphics, and even worse in windowed mode. Later Rush boards released by Hercules had 8 MiB VRAM and a 10% higher clock speed to close the performance gap.
A rare third version was produced which featured a Cirrus Logic 2D chip. This version fixed the PCI bus collisions and memory interface problems.
Sales of the Voodoo Rush cards were very poor, and the cards were discontinued within a year. The company would not attempt another 2D/3D solution again until the release of the Voodoo Banshee in 1998.
In 1998, 3dfx released Voodoo's successor, the popular Voodoo2. The Voodoo2 was architecturally similar, but the basic board configuration added a second texturing unit, allowing two textures to be drawn in a single pass.
The Voodoo2 required three chips and a separate VGA graphics card, whereas new competing 3D products, such as the ATI Rage Pro, Nvidia RIVA 128, and Rendition Verite 2200, were single-chip products. Despite some shortcomings, such as the card's dithered 16-bit 3D color rendering and 800x600 resolution limitations, no other manufacturers' products could match the smooth framerates that the Voodoo2 produced. It was a landmark (and expensive) achievement in PC 3D-graphics. Its excellent performance, and the mindshare gained from the original Voodoo Graphics, resulted in its success. Many users even preferred Voodoo2's dedicated purpose, because they were free to use the quality 2D card of their choice as a result. Some 2D/3D combined solutions at the time offered quite sub-par 2D quality and speed.
The arrival of the Nvidia RIVA TNT with integrated 2D/3D chipset would offer minor challenge to the Voodoo2's supremacy months later.
The Voodoo2 introduced Scan-Line Interleave (SLI), in which two Voodoo2 boards were connected together, each drawing half the scan lines of the screen. SLI increased the maximum resolution supported to 1024×768. Because of the high cost and inconvenience of using three separate graphics cards (two Voodoo 2 SLI plus the general purpose 2D graphics adapter), the Voodoo2 SLI scheme had minimal effect on total market share and was not a financial success.
SLI capability was not offered in subsequent 3dfx board designs, although the technology would be later used to link the VSA-100 chips on the Voodoo 5.
Having since acquired 3dfx, Nvidia in 2004 reintroduced the SLI acronym (now Scalable Link Interface) in the GeForce 6 Series. ATI Technologies has also since introduced its own multi-chip implementation, dubbed "CrossFire". Although NVIDIA SLI and ATI Crossfire operate on the original SLI principle of utilizing the power of multiple video cards, the implementation is different.
Near the end of 1998, 3dfx released the Banshee, which used a lower price achieved through higher component integration, and a more complete feature-set including 2D acceleration, to target the mainstream consumer market. A single-chip solution, the Banshee was a combination of a 2D video card and partial (only one texture mapping unit) Voodoo2 3D hardware. Due to the missing second TMU, in 3D scenes which used multiple textures per polygon, the Voodoo2 was significantly faster. However, in scenes dominated by single-textured polygons, the Banshee could match or exceed the Voodoo2 due to its higher clock speed and resulting greater pixel fillrate. While it was not as popular as Voodoo Graphics or Voodoo2, the Banshee sold a respectable number of units.
Banshee's 2D acceleration was the first such hardware from 3Dfx and it was very capable. It rivaled the fastest 2D cores from Matrox, Nvidia, and ATI. It consisted of a 128-bit 2D GUI engine and a 128-bit VESA VBE 3.0 VGA core. The graphics chip capably accelerated DirectDraw and supported all of the Windows Graphics Device Interface (GDI) in hardware, with all 256 raster operations and tertiary functions, and hardware polygon acceleration. The 2D core achieved near-theoretical maximum performance with a null driver test in Windows NT.
While Nvidia had yet to launch a product in the add-in board market that sold as well as 3dfx's Voodoo line, the company was gaining steady ground in the OEM market. The Nvidia RIVA TNT was a similar, highly integrated product that had two major advantages in greater 3D speed and 32-bit 3D color support. 3dfx, by contrast, had very limited OEM sales, as the Banshee was only adopted in small numbers by OEMs.
In 1997, 3Dfx was working with entertainment company Sega to develop a new video game console hardware platform. Sega solicited two competing designs: a unit code-named "Katana", developed in Japan using NEC and Imagination Technologies (then VideoLogic) technology, and "Blackbelt", a system designed in the United States using 3Dfx technology.
However on July 22, 1997, Sega announced that it was terminating the development contract, and that Sega chose to use NEC's PowerVR chipset for its game console.
3Dfx said Sega has still not given a reason as to why it terminated the contract or why it chose NEC's accelerator chipset over 3Dfx's. According to Dale Ford, senior analyst at Dataquest, a market research firm based in San Jose, California, a number of factors could have influenced Sega's decision to move to NEC, including NEC's proven track record of supplying chipsets for the Nintendo 64 and the demonstrated ability to be able to handle a major influx of capacity if the company decided to ramp up production on a moment's notice.
"This is a highly competitive market with price wars happening all the time and it would appear that after evaluating a number of choices—and the ramifications each choice brings—Sega went with a decision that it thought was best for the company's longevity," said Mr. Ford.
"Sega has to make a significant move to stay competitive and they need to make it soon. Now whether this move is to roll out another home console platform or move strictly to the PC gaming space is unknown."
Sega quickly quashed 3Dfx's "Blackbelt" and used the NEC-based "Katana" as the model for the product that would be marketed and sold as the Dreamcast. 3Dfx sued Sega for breach of contract, accusing Sega of starting the deal in bad faith in order to take 3Dfx technology. The case was settled out of court.
In early 1998, 3dfx embarked on a new development project. The Rampage development project was new technology for use in a new graphics card that would take approximately two years to develop, and would supposedly be several years ahead of the competition once it debuted. The company hired hardware and software teams in Austin, Texas to develop 2D and 3D Windows device drivers for Rampage in the summer of 1998. The hardware team in Austin initially focused on Rampage, but then worked on transform and lighting (T&L) engines and on MPEG decoder technology. (Later, these technologies were part of the Nvidia asset purchase in December 2000.)
Voodoo3 and strategy shift
3dfx executed a major strategy change just prior to the launch of Voodoo3 by purchasing STB Systems, which was one of the larger graphics card manufacturers at the time; the intent was for 3dfx to start manufacturing, marketing, and selling its own graphics cards, rather than functioning only as an OEM supplier. STB was obviously intended to give 3dfx access to that company's considerable OEM resources and sales channels, but the intended benefits of the acquisition never materialized. The two corporations were vastly different entities, with different cultures and structures, and they never integrated smoothly.
STB prior to the 3dfx acquisition also approached Nvidia as a potential partner to acquire the company. At the time, STB was Nvidia's largest customer and was only minimally engaged with 3dfx. 3dfx management mistakenly believed that acquiring STB would ensure OEM design wins with their products and that product limitations would be overcome with STB's knowledge in supporting the OEM sales/design win cycles. Nvidia decided not to acquire STB and to continue to support many brands of graphics board manufacturers. After STB was acquired by 3dfx, Nvidia focused on being a virtual graphics card manufacturer for the OEMs and strengthened its position in selling finished reference designs ready for market to the OEMs. STB's manufacturing facility in Juarez, Mexico was not able to compete from either a cost or quality point of view when compared to the burgeoning Original design manufacturers (ODMs) and Contract electronic manufacturers (CEMs) that were delivering solutions in Asia for Nvidia. Prior to the STB merger finalizing, some of 3dfx's OEMs warned the company that any product from Juarez will not be deemed fit to ship with their systems, however 3dfx management believed these problems could be addressed over time. Those customers generally moved to Nvidia solutions and no longer chose to ship 3dfx products.
The acquisition of STB was one of the main contributors to 3dfx's downfall; the company did not sell any Voodoo 4 or 5 chips to third party manufacturers which were a significant source of revenue for the company. These third-party manufacturers turned into competitors and began sourcing graphics chips from NVIDIA. This also further alienated 3dfx's remaining OEM customers, as they had a single source for 3dfx products and could not choose a CEM to provide cost flexibility. The OEMs saw 3dfx as a direct competitor in retail. With the purchase of STB 3dfx created a line of Velocity boards (a STB brand) that used crippled Voodoo3 chips, as a product to target the low-end market. The chip came with only a single functional TMU, making it similar to a Voodoo Banshee.
As 3dfx focused more on the retail graphics card space, further inroads into the OEM space were limited. A significant requirement of the OEM business was the ability to consistently produce new products on the six-month product refresh cycle the computer manufacturers required; 3dfx did not have the methodology nor the mindset to focus on this business model. In the end, 3dfx opted to be a retail distribution company manufacturing their own branded products.
The Voodoo 3 was hyped as the graphics card that would make 3dfx the undisputed leader but the actual product was below expectations. Though it was still the fastest as it edged the RIVA TNT2 by a small margin, the Voodoo3 lacked 32-bit color and large texture support. Though at that time few games supported large textures and 32-bit color, and those that did generally were too demanding to be run at playable framerates, the features "32-bit color support" and "2048x2048 textures" were much more impressive on paper than 16-bit color and 256x256 texture support. The Voodoo3 sold relatively well, but was disappointing compared to the first two models and 3dfx gave up the market leadership to Nvidia.
As 3dfx attempted to counter the TNT2 threat, it was surprised by Nvidia's GeForce 256. The GeForce was a single-chip processor with integrated transform, lighting, triangle setup/clipping (hardware T&L), and rendering engines, giving it a significant performance advantage over the Voodoo3.
Voodoo 4 and 5
The company's next (and as it would turn out, final) product was code-named Napalm. Originally, this was just a Voodoo3 modified to support newer technologies and higher clock speeds, with performance estimated to be around the level of the RIVA TNT2. However, Napalm was delayed, and in the meantime Nvidia brought out their landmark GeForce 256 chip, which shifted even more of the computational work from the CPU to the graphics chip. Napalm would have been unable to compete with the GeForce, so it was redesigned to support multiple chip configurations, like the Voodoo2 had. The end-product was named VSA-100, with VSA standing for Voodoo Scalable Architecture. 3dfx was finally able to have a product that could defeat the GeForce.
However, by the time the VSA-100 based cards made it to the market, the GeForce 2 and ATI Radeon cards had arrived and were offering higher performance at that price point. The only real advantage the Voodoo 5 5500 had over the GeForce 2 GTS or Radeon was its superior spatial anti-aliasing implementation, and the fact that it didn't take such a large performance hit (relative to its peers) when anti-aliasing was enabled. 3dfx was fully aware of the Voodoo 5's speed deficiency, so they touted it as quality over speed, which was a reversal of the Voodoo 3 marketing which emphasized raw performance over features. 5500 sales were respectable but volumes were not at a level to keep 3dfx afloat.
The Voodoo 5 5000, which had 32 MB of VRAM to the 5500's 64 MB, was never launched, as the smaller frame buffer didn't significantly reduce cost over the Voodoo 5 5500.
The only other member of the Voodoo 5 line, the Voodoo 4 4500, was as much of a disaster as Voodoo Rush, because it had performance well short of its value-oriented peers combined with a late launch. Voodoo 4 was beaten in almost all areas by the GeForce 2 MX—a low-cost board sold mostly as an OEM part for computer manufacturers—and the Radeon VE.
One unusual trait of the Voodoo 4 and 5 was that the Macintosh versions of these cards had both VGA and DVI output jacks, whereas the PC versions only had the VGA connector. Also, the Mac versions of the Voodoo 4 and 5 had an Achilles' heel in that they did not support hardware-based MPEG2 acceleration, which hindered the playback of DVDs on a Mac equipped with a Voodoo graphics card.
The Voodoo 5 6000 never made it to market, due to a severe bug resulting in data corruption on the AGP bus on certain boards, and was limited to AGP 2x. It was thus incompatible with the then-new Pentium 4 motherboards. Later tests proved that the Voodoo 5 6000 outperformed not only the GeForce 2 GTS and ATI Radeon 7200, but also the faster GeForce 2 Ultra and Radeon 7500. In some cases it was shown to compete well with the GeForce 3, trading performance places with the card on various tests. However, the prohibitively high production cost of the card, particularly the 4 chip setup, external power supply and 128 MB of VRAM (a very large amount at the time), would have likely hampered its competitiveness.
Acquisition and bankruptcy
In late 2000, not long after Voodoo 4's launch, several of 3dfx's creditors decided to initiate bankruptcy proceedings. 3dfx, as a whole, would have had virtually no chance of successfully contesting these proceedings, and instead opted to be bought by Nvidia, thus ceasing to exist as a company. The history of and participants in the 3dfx/Nvidia deal making can be read in the respective companies' financial filings from that time period. The resolution and legality of those arrangements (with respect to the purchase, 3dfx's creditors and its bankruptcy proceedings) were still being worked through the courts as of February 2009[update], nearly 9 years after the sale. A majority of the engineering and design team working on "Rampage" (the successor to the VSA-100 line) that remained with the transition, were requested and remained in house to work on what became the GeForce FX series. Others are known to have accepted employment with ATI to bring their knowledge to the creation of the X series of video cards and reform their own version of SLI known as "Crossfire" and yet another interpretation of 3Dfx's SLI ideal.
After Nvidia acquired 3dfx, mainly for its intellectual property, they announced that they would not provide technical support for 3dfx products. Drivers and support are still offered by community websites. However, while being functional, the drivers do not carry a manufacturer's backing and are treated as "Beta" by users still wanting to deploy 3dfx cards in more current systems. Nvidia offered a limited time program under which 3dfx owners could trade in their cards for Nvidia cards of equal performance value. On December 15, 2000 3dfx apologized to the customers with a final press release. The 3dfx bankruptcy is in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, appeal, Docket # 11-15189. Following is a clerk's order as filed in the docket:
|“||05/01/2012. Oral argument in this case is vacated. Oral argument and submission of this case are deferred pending resolution of In re Bellingham, No. 11-35162 (Argued and Submitted October 13, 2011). The question in In re Bellingham is whether, or in what circumstances, a bankruptcy court has jurisdiction to enter judgment on a fraudulent conveyance action.||”|
Cause of decline
Although 1997 was marked by analysts as a turning point for 3dfx due to the marketing led by the new CEO Greg Ballard, there was criticism of Ballard's understanding of R&D in the graphics industry. Single-card 2D/3D solutions were taking over the market, and although Ballard saw the need and attempted to direct the company there with the Voodoo Banshee and the Voodoo3, both of these cost the company millions in sales and lost market share while diverting vital resources from the Rampage project. Then 3dfx released word in early 1999 that the still-competitive Voodoo2 would only support OpenGL and Glide under Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system, and not DirectX. Many games were transitioning to DirectX at this point, and the announcement caused many PC gamers–the core demographic of 3dfx's market–to switch to Nvidia or ATI offerings for their new machines.
Graphics card table
Full article: Comparison of 3dfx graphics processing units
|Model||Launch||Code name||Fab (nm)||Bus interface||Memory (MiB)||Core clock (MHz)||Memory clock (MHz)||Config core1||Fillrate||Memory||DirectX support|
|MOperations/s||MPixels/s||MTextels/s||MVertices/s||Bandwidth (GB/s)||Bus type||Bus width (bit)|
|Voodoo Graphics||October 1, 1996||SST1||500||PCI||4, 6, 8||50||50||1:0:1:1||50||50||50||0||0.8||EDO||128||3.0|
|Voodoo Rush||April 1997||SST96||500||PCI||4, 6, 8||50||50||1:0:1:1||50||50||50||0||0.4||EDO||64||3.0|
|Voodoo2||March 1, 1998||SST96||350||PCI||8, 12||90||90||1:0:2:1||90||90||180||0||0.72||EDO||64||5.0|
|Voodoo Banshee||June 22, 1998||Banshee||350||AGP 2x, PCI||8, 16||100||100||1:0:1:1||100||100||100||0||1.6||SDR||128||6.0|
|Velocity 100||July 26, 1999||Avenger||250||AGP 2x||8||143||143||1:0:2:1||143||143||286||0||2.288||SDR||128||6.0|
|Velocity 200||Never Released||Avenger||250||AGP 2x||16||143||143||1:0:2:1||143||143||286||0||2.288||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo3 1000||March 1999||Avenger||250||AGP 2x, PCI||8, 16||125, 143||125, 143||1:0:2:1||125||125||250||0||2, 2.288||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo3 2000||April 3, 1999||Avenger||250||AGP 2x, PCI||16||143||143||1:0:2:1||143||143||286||0||2.288||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo3 3000||April 3, 1999||Avenger||250||AGP 2x, PCI||16||166||166||1:0:2:1||166||166||333||0||2.66||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo3 3500 TVsi||April 3, 1999||Avenger||250||AGP 2x||16||166||166||1:0:2:1||166||166||333||0||2.66||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo3 3500 TV||June 1999||Avenger||250||AGP 2x||16||183||183||1:0:2:1||183||183||366||0||2.928||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo3 3500 TV SE||June 1999||Avenger||250||AGP 2x||16||200||200||1:0:2:1||200||200||400||0||3.19||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo4 4000||Never Released||VSA-100||250||AGP 4x, PCI||16||166||166||2:0:2:2||332||332||332||0||2.656||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo4-2 4000||Never Released||VSA-101||180||AGP||16||?||?||2:0:2:2||?||?||?||0||?||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo4-2 4200||Never Released||VSA-101||180||AGP, PCI||16, 32||143||143||2:0:2:2||143||143||?||0||?||DDR||64||6.0|
|Voodoo4-2 4200||Never Released||VSA-101||180||PCI||32||166||166||2:0:2:2||166||166||?||0||?||DDR||64||6.0|
|Voodoo4 4500||October 13, 2000||VSA-100||250||AGP 2x/4x, PCI||32||166||166||2:0:2:2||332||332||332||0||2.656||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo4 4800||Never Released||VSA-100||250||AGP 4x, PCI||64||166||166||2:0:2:2||333||333||333||0||2.656||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo5 5000||Never Released||VSA-100 x2||250||AGP 4x, PCI||32||166||166||2:0:2:2 x2||664||664||664||0||2.656||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo5 5500||June 22, 2000||VSA-100 x2||250||AGP 2x, PCI||64||166||166||2:0:2:2 x2||664||664||664||0||2.656||SDR||128||6.0|
|Voodoo5 6000||Never Released||VSA-100 x4||250||AGP 4x, PCI||128||166||166||2:0:2:2 x4||1328||1328||1328||0||5.312||SDR||256||6.0|
|Spectre 1000||Never Released||Rampage||180||AGP 4x||64||200||400||4:0:4:4||800||800||800||0||6.4||DDR||128||7.0|
|Spectre 2000||Never Released||Rampage + Sage||180||AGP 4x||64||200||400||4:0:4:4||800||800||800||0||6.4||DDR||128||7.0|
|Spectre 3000||Never Released||Rampage x2 + Sage||180||AGP 4x||128||200||400||4:0:4:4 x2||1600||1600||1600||0||12.8||DDR||256||7.0|
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to 3dfx Interactive.|
- Greg Ballard discusses some of the reasons for 3dfx's decline, Stanford University, November 2006