Gaming Business Review sat down with Tony King-Smith, vice president of marketing at Imagination Technologies, a developer of mobile graphics and microprocessor chip technology, to discuss his view of current trends, as well as upcoming technologies. Like ARM, Imagination Technologies licenses its technologies to chip makers and is rising to fame with the boom that is surrounding smartphones and tablets.
Founded in 1985, Imagination’s break through moment was the integration of its technology in Sega’s Dreamcast game console in 1998. Today, the company is primarily known for its PowerVR graphics technology that is estimated to hold a 75% market share in smartphones and more than 50% in the overall mobile market. While mobile graphics has always been pursued by traditional graphics chip designers, it was Imagination that relentlessly pursued this opportunity and was rewarded with the lead that includes a developer ecosystem of about 30,200 developers today.
GBR: One of the best features of PowerVR over the past few years has been that the technology has scaled very well and has kept up with market demand. As the mobile market grows, there is more competition for you, including companies that specialize in graphics, such as Nvidia. How does that developing environment affect Imagination and your technology?
Tony King-Smith: If you are in a market with no competition, you are probably in the wrong market. Nvidia isn’t big competition from our point of view. Where we are standing, the competition is much more Qualcomm. And even if they are our competition, they are more our customers’ competition. We would consider both Nvidia and Qualcomm as potential licensees, as unlikely as it may sound. Both are chipmakers. Our customers are chipmakers. They all compete with each other. It is a very vibrant market.
Tony King-Smith: Sure, but they do not have a lot of market share today. They have a lot of work to do to increase their share and we believe that they will do whatever they need is necessary to do just that. Mobile is going to be the biggest of all computing markets and one expectation from Nvidia’s entry into the market is that, as they are more successful, they will attract more investment in this space to help developers. So far, I would say Nvidia has benefited a lot from the developers in our ecosystem. Developers tend to produce titles for PowerVR ecosystems, including iOS, and then ultimately do ports to other platforms, such as Tegra. Nvidia knows a lot of developers and we hope that they are putting some of that money into the market to attract other developers and turn the developer stream to go the other way. If people are attracted by Nvidia, that they will also create content for the PowerVR platform. From a SoC hardware design point of view, it is interesting to see that, in PowerVR designs, PowerVR is trending to be the biggest block on those SoCs. The GPU is bigger than the CPU. In Nvidia’s designs, it’s the other way. There are four CPU cores and there is a relatively small GPU core. We will be looking very closely if they will be changing that philosophy going forward.
GBR: In virtually any space of hardware development, companies appear to be accelerating their development pace. Intel said it is taking mobile chips on a pace that is twice Moore’s Law. Nvidia will be taking Tegra on an exponential performance increase road. How will Imagination keep pace with demand and rivals?
Tony King-Smith: We are very much engaged in this process right now. Our currently shipping product is PowerVR Series 5. We have been working on PowerVR Series 6 and we have been licensing the technology for some time. We have eight licensees, which we cannot publicly announce. The technology in the Series 6 is more processor centric. It’s not just about putting triangles on the screen. It is about everything that can be processed in parallel and that can be run on the GPU, because the GPU is very efficient. Renderscript or OpenCL allow that to happen. That trend is very much tied-in with the other trends that you mentioned. Unfortunately, I cannot be more specific at this point: We expect seeing silicon from our customers later this year and we will be able to be more forthcoming about how it all works when those chips are available.
GBR: What is your guideline for mass-market shipments?
Tony King-Smith: 2013 for mobile products in the market.
GBR: Any SoC that is discussed in public today tends to take a rather distinct direction as far as performance and power consumption is concerned. So, what is more important today? Performance or power?
Tony King-Smith: This is a choice that is made by our licensees. Initial products are targeted at about 200 GFlops on the silicon. Once it is taken into a phone or a tablet, manufacturers can make the choice to tune it up or down. We have an architecture that we can scale to about 1 TFlops over the lifetime of the product, based on the architecture, process technology and clock speed. Of course, people can also choose a more reasonable performance and longer battery life. In the end, it is about getting the maximum flops per milliwatt.
GBR: 1 TFlops? About 15 years ago, it took almost 10,000 Pentium pro processors to reach 1 TFlops in a supercomputer system and it seems that this performance level is coming close to what many consumers may consider as good enough even in their PCs. Can you imagine SoCs replacing discrete graphics cards?
Tony King-Smith: We are certainly extending our reach beyond mobile. Since we are coming from the mobile space, we can stretch out. We are already in mobile phones, tablets, handhelds, netbooks, ultrabooks, and we see a continuance toward entertainment-focused desktop models and higher-end markets.
GBR: There appears to be a clear opportunity to move upmarket. What are the immediate opportunities for you? What will be most lucrative?
Tony King-Smith: The sweetspot are applications that require a decent level performance at low power. Set top boxes, because they do not have fans, in-car scenarios, as well as console-level graphics level in the handheld space, which would include devices such as the PS Vita. A lot depends on what direction people take with next gen console designs.
GBR: The iPod and iPhone have redefined the UI interface for users and have made touch successful. What is next and after touch? Retina displays? 3D? Gesture models?
Tony King-Smith: Probably all of the above. I think stereoscopic 3D is potentially a bit of a fad. Retina displays are definitely a trend. It does not require work hard work on the part of the consumers and has very obvious benefits. There is also augmented reality. Back in the early 1990s, we had virtual reality. Now we have the graphics performance to bring that back and make it fully immersive. You also have Kinect – all that runs on the CPU and we are clearly looking at future Kinect-like devices as well.
GBR: 3D has been a failure so far. What is the problem?
Tony King-Smith: That’s a good question. from our point of view it’s a neat thing because it drives additional processing and it drives more performance, so it’s good for our bottom line. What 3D needs is compelling content. There were some really good 3D games, but there have been other 3D games that, quite frankly, could have been 2D. It is important to make great use of the technology and not making it seem me-too. For people, 3D is a bit of a mess in the video space, so they may not want it in the gaming space. That is a hurdle to overcome.
GBR: You recently announced raytracing capability for PowerVR. A future trend as well?
Tony King-Smith: We bought Caustic Graphics in 2010, which had an interesting approach to raytracing. We thought it would work nicely with our technology and made it part of the PowerVR roadmap. The idea is to bring raytracing from the high-end to emebedded and mobile devices. A part of the Caustic team has become part of the PowerVR group. As we go forward – it’s a longer term process – we are seeing raytracing being integrated in mobile. We are excited about raytracing and target real-time raytracing for mobile devices within four to five years.
GBR: Thank you for the interview.