Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Change in embedded 3D graphics market

Nvidia released it's latest offering in Tegra family at CES fair last week. The K1 CPU will be a game changer in consumer electronics. What makes it so special? At the moment there are only two companies having high-end 3D graphics acceleration assets. Those two companies - AMD and NVidia - are dominating the PC graphics card market at the moment.

What differentiates those two companies from each others is the fact that AMD does not have reasonable offering in embedded CPU sector. AMD is trying to enter into the embedded market with their x86 architecure G-series SOCs, but they are not yet quite there. AMD provides DX11 interface, but they are missing the CUDA architecture. The major benefit of AMD x86 architecture is the fact that it can run full featured Windows operating system. But hey, where are the Windows phones and tables, anyone seen? (*)

The K1 offers all the same interfaces for graphics acceleration that full featured PCs and consoles do, including OpenGL 4.4, DX11 and CUDE 6.0. That means PC/console games should be rather straightforward to port to the new CPU platform. Console level gaming in tablets is just behind the corner. And as the K1 is based on ARM architecture, Android is just a plug and play exercise for device maker.

Currently Qualcomm is dominating the high-end tablet and smart phone market, with almost 30% operational margin. In graphics, Qualcomm does not have such assets, and they are stuck on OpenGL ES level. In Snapdragon processors Qualcom has high performance graphics acceleration integrated, but as it has different graphics architecture which makes porting difficult, I do not expect them to win the high-end gaming market. If you haven't sold your Qualcomm shares yet, perhaps it's a good time to do it now.

Intel is next to non-existing player in the embedded market. I have never really understood what is the justification of existence of Atom processors. They are not good at anything. Now at CES Intel introduced a SD-card sized computer with Quark processor. The concept is called Edison. That's interesting, but definitely aimed at something else that high-performance graphics, wearable computing as Intel says. Perhaps now they have invented something where they can be good at.

At the moment, NVidia does not have a proper modem offering. If they ever will introduce one, or do co-operation with Broadcom, they will be very strong assets for smart phones as well. Broadcom has very strong position in connectivity chipsets at the moment, and as they recently purchased Renessas mobile (ex. Nokia modem division), they do have reasonable LTE-modem technology in hand.

Nvidia is strongly pushing itself into automotive market. Audi, BMW and Tesla are currently using Tegra technology in latest models. At CES, Audi demonstrated a virtual instrument cluster running in K1. The 3D software technology in use comes from Rightware, which provides Kanzi 3D solution with runtime rendering engine and UI development environment.

Rightware has it's headquarter just next to ours in Espoo, and I already have a Kanzi 3D demonstration setup on my desk. In my demo, Kanzi is running in Freescale quad-core i.MX6 CPU with Android. The i.MX6 is a nice chip, but it's limited to OpenGL ES graphics acceleration. That's definitely good enough for 3D visualization in working machines and vechicle environment, but it's not powerful enough for high-end gaming with high 3D graphics processing requirements. Actually, we have recently designed a professional vehicle graphical control panel with i.MX6 CPU that can benefit from 3D visualization technology.

*) In the local elementary school where my daughter is attending her fifth class, they are investing in new technology in teaching. Recently the school purchased tablets for all the students. Today at home my daughter reported that for a certain classroom assignment, half of the class got iPads, and rest of the class got Surfaces. Those lucky ones who got the iPads got the assignment done in half the time compared to the other ones with Surfaces.

Some further readings:
Rightware press release: The New Audi TT Instrument Cluster Created with Rightware Kanzi UI Solution
The Motley Fool: NVidias Tegra K1 Completely changes mobile gaming
CNet: NVidia K1 chip sees the open road
The Verge: Intel announces Edison, a computer the size of an SD card

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