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January/February 2009: Vision


By Kristof Beets

Bringing 3D Applications to LifePoised to pull this bandwagon is the technology called graphics acceleration. The latest features seen on PCs, such as Vista’s Aero 3D window interface or the Apple iTunes’ Cover Flow album finder, are immediately recognizable uses of this technology. A good graphics accelerator which can be a stand-alone chip, built into a chipset or system-on-chip (SoC) – renders images on a screen better than the system’s general-purpose CPU can. This lets the CPU perform its other functions without having to get faster or bigger.

Graphics acceleration already is ubiquitous on desktop and laptop PCs and game consoles. Take it away and many of the features we take for granted simply won’t work. But now the technology is spreading.

The mobile market is the key new frontier for graphics acceleration and, in particular, 3D. Jon Peddie, who heads up market research firm Jon Peddie Research, said the technology is fast becoming standard on mobile phones. “By 2012, more than 40 percent of all mobile phones shipped – some 500 million plus – will incorporate graphics acceleration hardware,” said Peddie. And it’s not just phones that will benefit. Personal multimedia players (PMPs), portable navigation devices (PNDs) handheld computers, gaming devices, cameras, and anything else users interact with, will all need some form of graphics acceleration.

Graphics acceleration is where the process of displaying images on the monitor is sped up, enabling visual effects otherwise impossible to achieve. Drawing graphics can be done in software or in hardware, but the hardware approach yields up to 15 to 20 times the performance of software alternatives, and with much lower active power consumption. These 3D scenes are represented by thousands of triangles called “polygons”, which are transformed into the pixels one sees at astonishing speed.

A range of products incorporating graphics acceleration are now hitting the market, and they’re stimulating the content community into action. 3D user interfaces (UIs) and 3D navigation will be the next “killer apps” for graphics acceleration in the mobile and automotive arenas; for end-product manufacturers, high-quality graphics, often combined with touch-screen and other innovative new technologies, will differentiate their offerings at the point-of-sale and provide them with a distinct marketing advantage. Technologies such as Imagination Technologies’ POWERVR MBX, are already powering advanced UIs and gaming in products like Nokia’s N95, Sony Ericsson’s W960i and DoCoMo’s SH905i.

There are just a few things that graphics acceleration can do:

1. User Interfaces

Since the UI is constantly in use, it’s the key shaper of the user’s product experience. Good use of graphics improves usability – it’s not just eye candy.

The size of the screen is getting larger representing 90 percent of the area of leading new devices. As a result, the screen is the key delivery point for product identity and branding, enabled by the graphics.

By employing 3D perspective, the designers of UIs can maximize the use of the available screen space. Techniques such as placing objects in the background until they’re needed, overlapping objects partially “behind” other objects, or using transparency, carousels and high-quality scaling, let designers profoundly change the utility of a device interface. Now-familiar UI effects, like Apple’s Cover Flow, are the result of 3D graphical processing and are simple examples of how a dynamic, graphically-rich 3D UI can transform the user experience.

2. Navigation and Driver Information

Both the in-car and PND markets are creating growing demands for advanced 3D graphics to represent the world on screen more realistically, adding features such as 3D points of interest and dynamic floating icons over a high frame-rate, true 3D map. 3D makes maps easier to navigate and relate to the surroundings. With 3D providing increasingly advanced user interfaces for in-car multimedia electronics, the outcome will be reconfigurable clusters of instruments, navigation, driver information, and other user controls all shown on a high-quality, graphics accelerator-driven display that can be “re-skinned” and reconfigured to reflect each user’s personal preferences.

3. Gaming

Accelerated graphics is standard on mass-market game systems, and new versions of the technology have highly efficient, low-bandwidth, low-power architectures that can now bring console-class gaming to the mobile world. Earlier versions of that technology have already been adopted by leading mobile device manufacturers and service providers, such as Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo (FOMA), and Samsung. The latest-generation accelerators can give mobile phones the same visual quality as a game console by using a system called shader-based graphics, where each image can be programmed to be more arresting and inventive, rather than being built up using basic rendering techniques that always look similar from application to application.

4. Flash Players

Adobe Flash technology is used for a growing number of Internet-based applications. High-performance Flash players that deliver the full desktop Flash experience are crucial to successful growth of the mobile Internet market. Optimized solutions are now possible using 3D graphics hardware acceleration engines, allowing users to browse to their heart’s content without fear of killing the battery on their phone or other connected device.

Enabling Accelerated Graphics

CE manufacturers and the semiconductor vendor s who serve them, must ensure they have access to the wide range of accelerated graphics functionality these sophisticated mobile devices require. However, creating and sustaining the fundamental technology to integrate into SoCs for these end-user markets can cost tens of millions of dollars and divert resources from the task of SoC integration. That’s where SoC intellectual property (IP) comes in.

Among the most advanced SoC IPs available today are 3D graphic cores that can deliver high image quality while using much less memory and consuming less power. The market, however, requires more than this; a key IP like 3D graphics must be delivered as a complete, integrated platform in order to simultaneously enable the semiconductor vendor, device manufacturer, and content provider.

The graphics acceleration technology in IP cores achieves this by addressing the important issues of software standardization, development tool provision, and industry support, which help maximize available content – and high-quality content drives sales. That is why the leading SoC IP providers are so successful today.

They work with all the major semiconductor players and key EOMs/ODMs (original equipment and design manufacturers), as well as standards bodies such as the Khronos Group – an industry consortium that has created several open-standard, royalty-free graphics APIs (application programming interfaces), such as OpenGL ES and OpenVG. These enable accelerated playback of dynamic media on a wide variety of platforms and devices.

As a result of SoC IP, the device manufacturer can cut costs and time-to-market, while devoting precious engineering dollars on delivering to end-users the higher performance and enhanced feature sets they demand for their next-generation mobile phones, PDAs and TVs; digital video, radio and audio; electronic gaming car navigation systems; and a host of other products.

3D graphics acceleration technologies are changing people’s relationships with their mobile devices, as seen by a growing number of devices and applications that use the technology. It will soon be the norm and demanded of future CE offerings. The bottom line is if you’re in product planning, design or manufacturing, you need to make sure that your chip supplier can meet your graphics acceleration needs. And if you’re the semiconductor vendor, the only realistic way to get such complex technology into your next designs is to license SoC IP. The bandwagon is moving with or without you.

Kristof Beets is business development manager for POWERVR Graphics at Imagination Technologies (www.imgtec.com).

Return to: 2009 Feature Stories