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NVIDIA’s 3D Vision Surround: A Game Changing Experience?

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SKYMTL

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Somewhere in the last five years, PC gaming lost its allure. Gone are the days when we see multiple triple-A PC exclusive titles released over the Christmas season or developers who are able to push the boundaries of PC hardware. For the most part we have begun seeing a general tendency for the large game developers to gravitate towards consoles. No matter how much we PC gamers decry these facts, console hardware is less expensive, more adaptable to a home theater roll and in many cases easier to set up and maintain. Those are the facts but both NVIDIA and ATI have realized it is possible to bring gamers back into the PC fold by offering them innovative technologies that improve the overall gaming experience. Instead of concentrating on technologies which involve players flailing around like idiots, a new focus is being put on display immersion by taking advantage of surround gaming.

The concept behind surround gaming is quite simple: to expand the image across more than one display which in theory allows for a wider field of view along with heightened situational awareness. Unfortunately, this genre had been mostly reserved for a select few who were willing to dive into an expensive and honestly not very well supported niche. We can’t really go further into this article without mentioning the fact that ATI blazed a trail by making their Eyefinity surround gaming technology accessible to a much broader market than any past solutions. With it, the possibility of three or more displays was suddenly within reach for gamers who wanted something a little more from their PC. In its relatively short time on the market, Eyefinity has found a legion of devoted fans.

Late last year we began hearing about NVIDIA’s own multi display technology but in true competitive fashion, they took surround gaming and added their own twist. Not only will NVIDA allow for up to three monitors to be used but their 3D Vision technology is also being leveraged to further engross people in the games they are playing. Dubbed NVIDIA Surround for the standard 3-monitor setup and 3D Vision Surround for the full-on 3D setup, consumers now have a choice of either a high end monitor configuration or a no holds barred stereoscopic experience. Naturally, this puts significant load upon the graphics subsystem which should definitely benefit the newest GTX 400 series cards but unlike ATI’s technology, NVIDIA’s Surround solution is compatible with past cards as well. That means people who have some higher-end GTX 200 cards will also be able to experience the glory of surround gaming.

NVIDIA believe their 3D Vision Surround will appeal to more people than ATI’s Eyefinity for a number of reasons. While we will wait for a future review to pit both technologies against one another, this article will act as an overview about this new entry into the gaming market and give some of our initial impressions. Expect a follow-up article shortly with complete benchmarks and more so let’s call this a primer of sorts before we get into the real meat of the situation.

 
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SKYMTL

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An Intro to NVIDIA Surround & 3D Vision Surround

An Intro to NVIDIA Surround & 3D Vision Surround


Before we really get into what NVIDIA Surround and 3D Vision Surround is all about, it is suggested that you take a look at our dedicated NVIDIA 3D Vision article which explains all of the finer points of the 3D portion of this technology.

When you take a step back and look at the situation, NVIDIA is very much following in ATI’s surround gaming footsteps. It is more than obvious that the PC gaming market has somewhat stagnated and gamers are on the lookout for something which will distinguish them from the console crowd. Indeed, the number of games released that seriously push PC hardware to the limits seems to shrink with every year. So in a market where a $300 graphics card has absolutely no issue rendering console-centric games at the highest detail settings, surround gaming gives NVIDIA and AMD / ATI a justifiable means to push ultra high end GPUs. Like them or not, these extreme performance cards are the bread and butter of any GPU division.


Spanning three displays with NVIDIA Surround or any other technology on the market isn’t as straightforward as one would like since the ability to do so is very much dependant on settings with the game engine itself. There are very few games on the market which provide the necessary field of view (FOV) needed to make surround gaming possible without serious distortion. If certain ultra wide resolutions aren’t available, the game will usually have its image stretched much like an HDTV will stretch a standard definition signal but ten times worse. Naturally, drivers do have an impact when it comes to seamlessly displaying this type of technology but they need to work hand in hand with a compliant game engine in order to provide a pain-free gaming experience.


3D Vision Surround takes things to the next level by providing the immersive experience of NVIDIA 3D’s Vision but across a trio of monitors. With the right game, the experience of out-of-screen effects is supposed to be simply mind-blowing with monitors enveloping you on every side. There is however a downside to this; since SIX images (one each for the left and right eyes across three panels) have to be displayed at the same time, the amount of graphics processing horsepower needed is significant. Let’s put it this way: if you were gaming on three 1080P monitors running 3D Vision at 60 frames per second, the GPUs would need to push out about three quarters of a BILLION pixels every second.


Both Eyefinity and NVIDIA’s Surround technology share many similarities but there are some differences between the two which are quite significant. To begin with, the monitor selection is quite a bit easier with NVIDIA’s product since you won’t have to worry about buying an overpriced DisplayPort-equipped monitor or an ultra expensive active DisplayPort Adaptor to ensure compatibility. Naturally, taking another step forward into the 3D Vision Surround experience will necessitate the purchase of a somewhat rare and costly 3D Vision 120Hz LCD monitor or projector.

Unlike ATI’s Eyefinity which can use a single or multiple GPUs, NVIDIA’s Surround and 3D Vision Surround rely very much on multi card setups. The reasoning behind this is quite simple: if you have the money for multiple displays, you will likely want the most powerful system possible to drive them. Unfortunately, this does cut NVIDIA out of the budget 2D surround experience but for those who want to use certain professional apps, the Quadro NVS series of cards is there to provide an efficient and quiet multi monitor setup. Compatibility is also possible with the more budget-friendly GTX 465 and one would assume some upcoming lower-end cards as well. One of the largest benefits of Surround on the other hand is its backwards compatibility with certain GTX 200 series cards as well.
 
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SKYMTL

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Display Technology: Still Playing Catch-Up

Display Technology: Still Playing Catch-Up


Back when we first looked at NVIDIA’s 3D Vision, one of our main concerns was the lack of choice when it came to LCD monitors that supported the necessary 120Hz technology. Honestly, not much has changed since then. There are a mere nine upcoming and current monitors listed as being compatible with 3D Vision and of these only five (two 23” and the three 22” units that were originally released over a year ago) are readily available. Pricing isn’t what we could call enticing either with the Acer 23" monitor going for slightly below $400 USD and Alienware’s OptX 23” LCD retailing for $450. Considering the average price for a similar 60Hz TN panel-totting display is currently around $225, these cutting edge monitors are likely to only appeal to those with deep pockets.


Monitor support for NVIDIA’s standard 2D Surround is actually quite straightforward. You can have up to three 30” monitors in either portrait or landscape mode without any issues but this is a cutback from ATI’s ability to drive up to six displays with an Eyefinity 6 card.

Choosing a setup for 3D Vision Surround is a bit more complicated and limited for mostly technical reasons. First of all, NVIDIA doesn’t expect any 16:10 aspect ratio 1920 x 1200 24” monitors to be available with support for 3D Vision and our contacts at various LCD manufacturers support this. In our experience, the limited vertical space of a 16:9 monitor is a huge loss when it comes to displaying 3D images or playing fast-paced games where wider vertical viewing angles could be the difference between life and death.

Another issue for some appreciating additional vertical space is 3D Vision Surround’s inability to work on displays in portrait mode. This is due to the polarization on the glasses and monitors needing to be in the same direction which isn’t possible with the displays rotated 90 degrees.


The number of display configurations is impressive to say the least and one of NVIDIA Surround’s most redeeming qualities is its ability to mix and match monitors. This means that while all of the monitors need to be the same resolution and aspect ratio, you don’t need three identical products for 2D viewing. However, when it comes to 3D Vision Surround things are a bit different. In order to ensure proper synchronization between the screens, all of the monitors need to be identical 120Hz-supporting units.

It should also be noted that when using 2D Surround mode an additional accessory display is possible. This display can be used for anything from web page viewing to IMing but it cannot be used for gaming in addition to the other three monitors unless the game engine itself supports a secondary monitor (like the Supreme Commander series).

Finally, there has been a lot of talk about the possibility of using non-TN panels for 3D displays. According to many, TN panels lag far behind IPS and PVA technologies in certain key areas like colour accuracy and viewing angles. On the flip side of that coin TN panels are literally second to none when it comes to the one factor which allows 3D Vision to provide a fluid experience: response times.

Due to the inherent response time limitations of In-Plane Switching technology, it is highly doubtful we will see a 120Hz IPS panel available on the market anytime soon. Granted, LG’s E-IPS panels have shown response times of around 5ms but coupling this with a 120Hz refresh rate may prove to be a bridge too far for the time being. There is however the possibility of seeing PVA panels making their way into the 3D Vision field since several manufacturers well on their way to producing S-PVA, true 120Hz displays for the television market.
 
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SKYMTL

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Getting the Most out of SLI

Getting the Most out of SLI


As we have already mentioned, SLI is a necessity when it comes to using both NVIDIA’s 2D Surround and 3D Vision Surround. Many will likely decry this prerequisite but there are several reasons behind this decision that have more to do with technical hurdles than they do with a need to sell more GPUs. Nonetheless, there is no doubt in our minds that NVIDIA has indeed set themselves up perfectly for marketing SLI as a gateway to immersive gaming.

One of the main reasons behind the SLI + Surround implementation is that the GTX 400 and 200 series only support two active display outputs at once which necessitates an additional card being added for a third working monitor connector. In addition, to game at reasonable quality settings across a trio of monitors takes a significant amount of graphics horsepower and there is no denying people will want the performance boost two cards will give them.


For 2D surround applications, SLI uses a rendering technique called Alternate Frame Rendering (or AFR for short) which allows one GPU to work on the even number frames while the second GPU will work on the odd number frames. In order to do this NVIDIA’s drivers treat all three monitors combined as a single display so the load can be split evenly between both cards. Naturally, this mode allows for better performance than a Supertiled (also called checkerboard) Mode or a Scissor Mode that allows one card to render the top portion of the display and the other renders the bottom regardless of the geometry load each incurs.

If you add a third GPU into the mix, AFR mode remains in place but the additional GPU will end up rendering every third frame. This means GPU 1 will process frames 1, 4, 7, etc. GPU 2 will take care of frames 2, 5, 8 and GPU 3 will render frames 3, 6, 9 and so on.


When rendering a 3D Vision Surround setup, things get a bit more complicated simply because there is double the amount of work to do. In order to seamlessly display the images for both eyes concurrently, NVIDIA drivers dictate that each card will render both left and right views at the same time. This doubling of the workload will of course have a significant impact upon performance since the GPUs are being asked to render each frame twice.




The technical aspects of using SLI are quite complicated but luckily the connector layout isn’t. Dual GPU cards like the GTX 295 with its internal SLI connector allow you to run all of the displays off of a single card but there are a few major caveats. While 2D Surround is supported with a single GTX 295, 3D Vision Surround is not due to the necessity of having the bandwidth of three Dual Link DVIs feeding the monitors. Also, in an effort to save money some of NVIDIA’s board partners eliminated the HDMI connector on the back of the late version dual GPU cards which means there are simply not enough connectors for three monitors.
 
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SKYMTL

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A Key to Success: Ease of Use

A Key to Success: Ease of Use


One of the most important aspects of both surround gaming and especially 3D display technology is a properly functioning setup process so newcomers can get the best possible experience. The ability to properly set up three or more displays is absolutely essential but if the drivers aren’t designed in a user-friendly way, things could end in disaster. Let’s see how NVIDIA’s control panel has been modified with these new settings.


With the latest beta drivers being posted this week, NVIDIA has added several new sections to their familiar control panel. There is now a general Configuration section under the 3D Settings which allows most of the graphics plus technologies to be set up in one area. 3D Vision meanwhile is set up in its own dedicated tab closer to the bottom of the main menu.

The layout of this configuration section is amazingly straightforward with SLI and its multi display options being accessed in the top left corner. Meanwhile, it is also possible to select which device does the PhysX calculations in the upper right-hand corner followed by a handy pictogram at the bottom so you can visually understand the layout you have chosen. For the sake of this article, we will follow the trail from the Surround Configure button.




The first screen holds a diagram that shows you which connectors should be populated on your graphics cards. This is followed by a dialog box where you are able to select between landscape or portrait modes. Within this section you are able to drag and drop the 1, 2 and 3 numbers for quickly setting up the location of each monitor and its associated output. This step is essential when it comes to ensuring a surround setup properly displays the center view on the middle monitor.

The final setting you are able to modify is the most important when it comes to correctly using Surround in games: Bezel Correction.


What bezel correction allows you to do is compensate for the thickness of your monitor’s frames in order to ensure a continuous image from one monitor to the next. Above we have a screenshot of what happens when bezel correction isn’t enabled across two monitors: as you can see, the road lines don’t line up. What NVIDIA’s drivers do is display the road pattern between two monitors and you can then use the included selector to add pixels “behind” the bezels until the two images line up. The setup program then allows you to create a new bezel corrected resolution which equals the amount of horizontal pixels created plus the resolution of the three monitors. So, if you have three 1920 x 1200 monitors and 100 pixels of correction between each, the new created resolution would be 5960 x 1200 (1920 x 3 + 100 + 100).

Unfortunately, in our beta drivers there was no indicator which displayed the exact resolution the setup program created. This is a bit of a frustration but there is another section which displays these new settings as we will see below. We also encountered another issue where reentering the Bezel Correction menu for additional fine tuning after it was already set up resulted in the incorrect information being displayed even though the system was set up properly. The only way to properly fine tune the settings was to disable and then restart the whole setup process. Frustrating? You bet but luckily these ARE beta drivers we are using.
 
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SKYMTL

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A Key to Success: Ease of Use pg.2

A Key to Success: Ease of Use pg.2



In order to actually see which resolutions were created, you have to go all the way into the Change Resolution dialog box and make careful note of the bezel corrected options. Why? Unfortunately, the non-bezel corrected resolutions will show up in games. Optimally, we would like a setting which stops the non-bezel corrected resolutions from being displayed since this would eliminate a good amount of guesswork in some situations.

While the length of this section may give you a false sense of complication about NVIDIA’s setup procedure, this couldn’t be further from the truth. They have made huge strides towards usability and the process is extremely user friendly as it only involves a few steps. Naturally, these being beta drivers means there are still some speedbumps along the road but for the most part NVIDIA should be proud of what they have accomplished. For example, my usual litmus test for usability -called, “the girlfriend”- resulted in a 15 minute setup time from plugging in the monitors to a fully functional surround setup. To show you how easy it this was, below is an unedited video showing the steps. I apologize for the quality in advance.

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SKYMTL

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Our Test System & ErgoTech’s Triple Monitor Stand

Our Test System & ErgoTech’s Triple Monitor Stand


When it comes to implementing a brand new system and testing everything to its max in under a week, certain strings have to be pulled. Timing was extremely tight with this article (I still didn’t have enough time to include everything I wanted) and if it wasn’t for the generosity of several companies, there is no way our piece would be anywhere near complete in time for launch. So, in this section we’re giving a bit of face value to the components that made up our test system.


Digital Storm's 3D Vision PC

After a massive culling of the industry over the last few years, there aren’t that many boutique PC manufacturers around anymore. Digital Storm proved there was still place for a company to stay independent of the Dells and HPs of this world while still offering excellent customer service and top-end build quality. Their business practices revolve around offering everything from ultra high end systems to more budget friendly solutions to gamers who want to just unpack and get playing as soon as possible. They are one of the many companies that have jumped on board NVIDIA’s 3D Vision PC initiative and as such the system we received came preset with all of the options necessary to enjoy Surround in three dimensions.


Wrapped within the stunning exterior of a Silverstone Fortress FT02 is a system most enthusiasts would be more than happy to have running their gaming experience. It includes a Core i7 960, EVGA X58 FTW3 SLI motherboard, 6GB of memory, a pair of GTX 480 cards and literally everything else you could possibly want in a gaming rig.


Amazingly, even with a pair of GTX 480 cards, this system is amazingly quiet since the massive bottom-mounted fans effectively push air up towards the exposed heatsinks of the GPUs as well as the Noctua heatsink. It’s not often we see a passively cooled setup in an enthusiast system but this was accomplished by Digital Storm to great effect.

There is one thing we should mention: Digital Storm, if you are selling a high-powered enthusiast grade system, at least have the forethought to include an 80 Plus Silver rated power supply. The unit provided only meets standard 80Plus certification.


Acer GD235HZ 23.6”, 120Hz LCD


Billed as one of the first 1080P, 120Hz monitors on the market geared directly at gamers, Acer’s $390 GD235HZ will likely be the monitor of choice for people looking for the best possible 3D Vision Surround experience. It uses a TN panel so viewing angles aren’t all that great but for the most part colours are accurately represented after calibration as long as you are looking at it straight-on. If anything, the orange base is sure to get people looking twice, unless you use the next bit of hardware we received….


ErgoTech’s Triple Monitor Stand

One of the main issues with any triple monitor surround setup is the amount of space it takes up on your desk. ErgoTech is a company that produces a wide range of solutions which are designed to clear up some of the clutter by incorporating multiple monitors into a single unified stand. Their triple monitor stand is pricy at around $330 but in our opinion more than worth the investment, especially considering it is one of the few stands on the market that allows for three 24" panels.


Overall the setup of this stand was extremely easy and the construction is of the absolute highest quality steel construction. There are limitations regarding the monitor size Ergotech’s solution will accept but they are grounded well within reality: any 24” 16:9 or 16:10 monitor will fit due to the innovative telescoping arms.

The system also includes a VESA mountable, fully adjustable bracket that allows the monitor to rotate, pivot, pitch, height adjust and slide along the stand’s arms for additional fine tuning of your viewing experience.

 
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SKYMTL

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The NVIDIA Surround Experience in Detail

The NVIDIA Surround Experience in Detail


One of the most unfortunate things about reviewing this type of system is the “you have to see it to believe it” nature of surround and especially 3D. There is simply no way for us to accurately convey how being enveloped by three monitors makes the in-your-face feel of a 30” monitor seem trivial by comparison. Honestly, it’s like comparing a widescreen TV to being thrown face first into an IMAX cinema. There is just no contest between the two when it comes to most game genres.

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In my opinion, racing games, aircraft simulations, first person shooters, RPGs and so many other genres take on a whole new meaning when played in a surround environment. The experience can only be called awe-inspiring. This goes doubly for the racing games like DiRT 2 (see video above) which have been tailor-made with the surround experience in mind.

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Even without modifying the Field of View settings in the game’s .ini (more on this later), BattleField: Bad Company 2 looked absolutely stunning. One of the major benefits I experienced was the expanded view helping locate enemies that would normally be outside the field of vision on a standard monitor.

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HawX was one of the new flight simulator games released in the last few years and it is simply a showcase for what gaming should be like when it spans more than two monitors. If you love flight or combat simulators, you would be crazy not to at least consider purchasing a few more monitors.

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I’m an avid strategy / RTS fan but I draw the line at playing this genre on a Surround system. Playing these types of games across three monitors could be invaluable if it wasn’t for the forced perspective on the side monitors completely skewing the perception of where things are on the battlefield. FOV adjustments can help but it would be much more beneficial to allow three monitors to be used WITHOUT surround options enabled.

In addition, this setup makes panning and rotating the camera extremely labor-intensive simply because your cursor has a far way to travel on the horizontal axis.
 
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SKYMTL

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Adding in a Dash of 3D to Surround

Adding in a Dash of 3D to Surround


While Surround gaming is easy to record and send streaming over the internet, there just isn’t a proper way in which to display the glory of 3D Vision Surround. For the time being we can only describe it. To begin with, we highly recommend that you visit your local PC store where NVIDIA will be hopefully setting up demo systems sometime soon before making the jump to this particular configuration. Some people just can't handle the depth settings of 3D Vision. After you are used to the experience though, playing certain games without 3D enabled is like ordering an old fashioned American-style breakfast only to have it arrive without bacon…and with dry toast. 2D will just feels incomplete.


I am a self-confessed fan of 3D Vision but absolutely hate most other things 3D. The whole modern 3D craze just hasn’t been around long enough to produce much high quality material and the resulting films end up casting what should be a great technology in an extremely poor light. NVIDIA on the other hand has been refining their 3D technology for much longer than most movie studios and they have a medium which translates perfectly into that extra dimension we call depth perception.

Adding 3D to NVIDIA Surround works very well for the most part. Not only do you get the all-encompassing view in your peripheral vision but also the added out of screen effects that are the highlight of any 3D Vision gameplay session. If you are anything like me, there are times where the game will be completely forgotten while you sit there dodging debris. It truly does bring the excitement back into gaming and you’ll want to yank out all of your older games and replay them with your new setup.


That being said, there are times when Surround and 3D just don’t walk hand in hand. Finding titles that boast excellent compatibility for both technologies can be a lesson in frustration and let me tell you, there aren’t all that many out there…yet. 3D Vision also has a faintly headache-inducing effect if you bump up the depth without getting accustomed to the lower settings first. This effect is actually magnified when using three monitors to the point where I had to turn down my own configuration from a relatively high 70% depth to 25%. It was like relearning to walk after knowing how to run.

Unfortunately, I personally find the added depth perception to be extremely distracting in strategy games even after using the system intensively for over a year now. As was stated in the last section, Surround and strategy games don’t play together all that well and 3D Vision only adds to the frustration. I found myself yearning for my 30” Samsung monitor but then again, this is only my personal experience and yours may differ.

My experience with the viewing aspect of NVIDIA’s 3D Vision Surround was positive to say the least and yet you can’t expect miracles from this or any other 3D solution for that matter. It does make gaming a much more immersive experience and if you read on you’ll see that we did have our fair share of problems with NVIDIA Surround as well.
 
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A Quick Glance at Actual Performance

A Quick Glance at Actual Performance


We all know that the increase in pixels when going from a single display to three will likely result in a huge performance drop off. In this section we see exactly what type of impact adding two additional monitors AND 3D will have on the overall playability of some compatible games. Please note that we are using our Digital Storm system including the following components:

Intel i7 960 @ 3.2Ghz
EVGA X58 FTW3 Motherboard
6GB DDR3 1600Mhz Memory
2x NVIDIA GTX 480
NVIDIA 256 Beta Driver







Well that’s eye-opening, isn’t it? Believe it or not, adding a pair of monitors didn’t impact performance as much as we thought it would considering in most cases we saw a 30-40% drop in framerates. This is likely due to most of the detail and action within the games happening in the front third of the monitor setup while the other two panels simply render the perspective views.

Adding 3D Vision to the mix results in something else altogether. The performance drop-off is massive to say the least and even a pair of GTX 480 cards ended up choking every now and then. Just take into account that all of the games above were tested with high detail settings and simply dialing back anti aliasing usually resulted in a significant improvement to the playability of some games. Nonetheless, the fact that two GTX 480 cards can handle this type of load at nearly maximum detail settings across six images (two for each eye) is simply awe inspiring.
 
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