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17 May 2019

Imagination is back, seeking to set standards for advanced 5G graphics

Imagination Technologies is rebounding from its near-death experience, when it was forced to break up the company after Apple stopped using its PowerVR GPU (graphical processor unit) cores in the iDevices, in favor of an inhouse design. The UK company sold off its MIPS processor core unit and other acquisitions it had made in recent years, but continues to develop licensable GPU cores, and to extend them to support new mobile use cases.

Its latest move is to open up its PowerVR ray tracing intellectual property (IP), which has until now been used only in its own products, for third party licensing. It says this will extend its adoption via companies which will use it for emerging 5G applications that require high quality graphics rendering with very realistic effects of light and shade. These have traditionally required huge amounts of compute power but Imagination has reduced complexity and power to support mobile applications.

In an exclusive interview with EETimes, Imagination said that ray tracing will enable extremely realistic image rendering, using light-modelling techniques, which can be integrated into the GPUs and applied to mobile, automotive or cloud applications.

The PowerVR architecture supports the processing of billions of rays per second (gigarays) and lowers the power consumption of the technique. The IP can be used to add realistic ray-traced light, shadow and transparency capabilities to traditional GPUs, or for dedicated solutions.

Just as Imagination dominated mobile GPU core IP – until ARM challenged it with its Mali platform, and Apple defected – so it looks poised to try the same again, this time targeting 5G graphics rendering. And ray tracing is increasingly prominent – Intel included the technique in its recently announced Xe architecture roadmap, and ray tracing will be supported by the Intel Rendering Framework.

Imagination told EETimes that it had invested significant sums in the technology, but then paused the development because there was no ecosystem – “but now the market has caught up”.  Nigel Leeder, EVP of PowerVR, said: “Ray tracing today is where 3D graphics were just before we first introduced PowerVR GPUs for mobile. The solutions in the market are fine for PC and console, but don’t offer the efficiency for mobile, augmented reality, or automotive applications.”

The PowerVR ray tracing technology that Imagination is making available for licensing today includes patents, architecture, GPU integration references and standards-based API support. The company holds over 220 patents and applications based on its ray tracing technology.