ARM takes 3D to phone makers

ARM has been pushing the PowerVR MBX core, developed with Imagination Technologies, as a technology for building realistic 3D graphics into mobile devices.
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor on
ARM has been pushing the PowerVR MBX core, developed with Imagination Technologies, as a technology for building realistic 3D graphics into mobile devices.

It is in a good position to promote the technology as its chip designs power handheld computers such as Palm OS and Pocket PC devices, as well as the majority of mobile phones. Chip builders and device makers, for their part, are keen to tap into attractive features that will keep consumers interested.

ARM has now added PowerVR MBX into a custom development chip in the RealView Versatile family of hardware development boards, which are used to develop ARM-based processors and devices. The move makes it easier for manufacturers to tap into PowerVR MBX technology.

"ARM's RealView Versatile family allows manufacturers to accelerate the design cycle for next generation mobile phones and PDAs," said Imagination vice president John Metcalfe in a statement. "These products will require PowerVR MBX's advanced graphics performance and capabilities for the applications needed to draw in new consumers and maintain the phone-replacement market."

The board supports ARM's Primexsys Platform ARM926EJ-S core, and includes other add-on cores such as the ARM VFP9-S coprocessor, which increases performance for imaging applications.

Several chipmakers are already licensing PowerVR MBX. Texas Instruments, a leader in wireless chips, said in April that it would license the core for use in its OMAP (Open Multimedia Applications Platform) family of application processors, which power Palm handheld computers, Windows CE devices and Symbian smartphones, among other devices.

PowerVR MBX is expected to put console-level graphics into low-power mobile devices. The technology has low memory requirements, a factor crucial in highly integrated devices like phones, and one directly related to power consumption. The first products using the graphics core are expected to appear in 2004 or 2005.

Imagination knows something about gaming graphics, as the PowerVR architecture has already been used in arcade games and Sega's Dreamcast videogame console. Imagination worked with ARM on adapting PowerVR for mobile processors, resulting in PowerVR MBX.

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. The technique economises on memory bandwidth by communicating only the pixels that need to be rendered.

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

Imagination has recently become known in the UK for a product that has little to do with its core graphics business. The company's Evoke-1, the UK's first sub-£100 digital radio, has become an unexpected top seller since its launch last year, with thousands of unfilled orders at retail outlets such as department store John Lewis. Imagination runs Pure Digital, its digital radio subsidiary, as a showcase for its intellectual property.

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