ARM pushes 3D for mobile phones

The chip designer is betting that 3D will be a feature of mainstream mobile phones before long, as network operators hunt for ways to grab users' attention

UK chip designer ARM Holdings is readying its first silicon designs that will bring console-class 3D graphics to mobile devices. ARM's processor components, or cores, are used in about three-quarters of the world's mobile phones, and power Pocket PC and next-generation Palm handheld computers.

The new products are the fruit of a year-and-a-half-long collaboration with Imagination Technologies, also based in the UK, whose PowerVR architecture has powered everything from arcade games to the defunct Dreamcast console. ARM worked with Imagination to retool PowerVR for the embedded market, a broad term for non-PC computing devices, resulting in the PowerVR MBX graphics and video core.

This core was recently licensed by chip giant Intel, which separately licenses ARM's products for its XScale embedded processor architecture.

ARM's involvement is important because it has the potential to bring PowerVR MBX to a wide variety of mass-market embedded devices. The company is initially targetting the huge mobile phone industry. "Mobile phone service providers have invested a lot of money (in 3G), and they need to get that back by raising their revenues per user," said Noel Hurley, consumer entertainment segment manager with ARM. "Gaming is going to be an increasingly important feature in phones. There is a tremendous demand for games in the marketplace."

The company is now in the process of pitching its implementation of PowerVR MBX, which can be licensed alongside ARM's other products, to semiconductor makers. The first products using the technology are expected to debut in 2004 or 2005, although the timeline depends on manufacturers. ARM said it has seen a "good level of interest" from semiconductor makers.

PowerVR MBX is expected to put PlayStation-level graphics into low-power mobile devices such as phones and PDAs.

ARM chose Imagination's technology because of the low memory bandwidth it consumes, a factor crucial in highly integrated devices like phones, and directly related to power consumption, according to Hurley. PowerVR achieves low memory bandwidth through a technique called tile-based rendering, which is now beginning to catch on in the high-performance graphics world, as a way to combat memory bottlenecks in PCs and gaming consoles, Hurley said.

"Imagination has been working on tile-based rendering for the longest, and other graphics vendors are now moving towards that as well," he said.

Low memory bandwidth will also have an impact on price, as manufacturers will not be forced to use more expensive high-performance memory.

ARM is also working with Superscape, which makes software for reducing the size of 3D applications.

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