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Mobile standards, APIs on table at graphics show

Posted: 03 Aug 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:graphics? cell phone?

High-end graphics on meaty engineering workstations used to be the bread and butter of the Siggraph conference every summer, but companies with advances in cell phone media will put on a significant spread at this week's Los Angeles event.

The Khronos Group was expected to announce a new effort today to set an audio hardware acceleration standard for embedded systems like handsets. The new effort from the 80-plus-member consortium comes at the same time as its release of version 2.0 of OpenGL ES, an application programming interface (API) for 3-D graphics on embedded systems - primarily cell phones. Separately, the group has also completed work on an API for accelerating 2-D vector graphics and has started work on a high-level media standard for authoring tools.

"The gap between [media capabilities in] handhelds and PCs today is really just about two years," said Neil Trevett, president of the ad hoc Khronos Group and newly installed vice president of embedded content for graphics chip maker Nvidia Corp. (Santa Clara, Calif.).

Khronos voted in late July to create a working group to write an API for accelerating audio on embedded systems. The API will primarily focus on creating a standard way to bring 3-D sound, MIDI playback and other advanced audio features to cell phones, portable media players and handheld game machines.

"I would be surprised if the videogame console space did not pick up on this in some way, and it could serve any embedded system," said Trevett. "There's a crisis in embedded audio. There are too many audio standards in Windows, Java, Linux and proprietary environments."

Creative Labs Inc., father of the Sound Blaster PC audio acceleration standard, got the embedded audio effort started. The company builds a Windows-based portable media player and has a merchant chip subsidiary in the former 3Dlabs acquired about a year ago.

Creative, Nvidia and three audio software companies are initially driving the new audio spec. "This amounts to an opportunity for silicon vendors to create a single embedded audio accelerator. I believe it creates an opportunity for us at Nvidia, too," said Trevett.

Khronos expects the group could release a 1.0 spec at the Siggraph conference in August 2006.

Meanwhile, Khronos' version 2.0 of OpenGL ES, its embedded 3-D graphics API, is a major rewrite of version 1.1, opening the door to support for the OpenGL Shader Language. OGSL gives software developers freedom to create their applications-level graphics programs to generate a richer array of textures, lighting and other effects on standard accelerator chips, a capability that has come just recently to desktop 3-D systems.

"This will raise the bar in graphics quality for handheld systems so that they more closely approach the state of the art in PCs today," Trevett said.

'A critical issue'

OpenGL ES 2.0 will also sport a new frame buffer object technology to enable simplified management of frame buffer memory, often a limited commodity in handheld devices. "That's a critical issue for us," Trevett said.

Because the new API will handle a broader array of 3-D features, it will offload graphics processing from embedded hosts more frequently than the existing 1.1 version spec.

The change could translate into less battery drain when it runs graphics for embedded systems.

The 2.0 spec also sports a new royalty-free texture-compression scheme donated by Sony Ericsson. It replaces a technology that required the payment of royalties to S3 Corp.

Chip makers will need to redesign some of the fixed-function state machines in their existing OpenGL ES graphics accelerators to support the 2.0 programmable shader capabilities. Specifically, a new programmable shader block will replace three existing state machines in version 1.1 chips and a vertex shader will replace a dedicated lighting and transform engine.

Trevett said the overall complexity and gate count of 2.0 chips could be similar to their 1.1 predecessors. However, chip makers will have to devote more software work to creating compilers and other programming tools for the 2.0 generation accelerators.

Because of the underlying hardware changes, 2.0 chips won't be able to run 1.1-generation games and applications, but that should not present a problem. "There are a number of OpenGL ES 1.1 apps and games shipping now, but they tend to be rewritten for every generation to take advantage of the latest hardware," Trevett said.

At least one chip maker is expected to demonstrate a prototype 2.0 accelerator at Siggraph this week. Chips are not expected to be widely available until next year, however.

Separately, Khronos will launch an extension pack this week for the existing 1.1 standard. It adds the frame buffer object technology and a handful of other incremental features to the existing standard. It also requires chips to support 4-bit depth and stencil buffer.

The 1.1 extensions will likely be codified as a version 1.2 sometime in the next year. The group's original plan was to release the technology as part of a version 1.2 this year.

"We were moving too fast," Trevett said. "The 1.1 handsets are just now shipping. Handset OEMs might get confused if version 1.2 chips were shipping before the 1.1 version phones got into the market."

Indeed, today Nvidia is only shipping OpenGL ES version 1.0 hardware.

Cleaner maps

Khronos launched two other APIs today. A safety-critical version of OpenGL ES could cut the size and complexity of the embedded-graphics interface in half for users in the automotive and avionics sectors.

In addition, Khronos is releasing version 1.0 of OpenVG, an API for accelerating 2-D vector graphics used heavily in maps, .pdf files and Macromedia Flash.

"Having no 2-D acceleration is OK on a PC where you have a Pentium 4 host, but it really sucks when you have an embedded processor that's not nearly as powerful," Trevett said. "And handling 2-D graphics on an embedded host CPU is the worst thing you can do in terms of battery consumption."

Thanks to the API, existing OpenGL ES chips will be able to have the new 2-D capability immediately. Some vendors plan 2-D-only embedded accelerators. BitBoys will demonstrate such a chip at Siggraph.

"This effectively creates a new market segment opportunity," Trevett said. "Not all handhelds will need 3-D graphics, but they will all need 2-D."

Finally, Sony Corp. has announced that it will turn over to the Khronos Group its Collada effort to create a high-level tools API for interchange of graphics data. The XML-based approach lets users share graphics objects between software packages without the data loss that takes place using today's import-export utilities. That could ease the path for jobs such as scaling console videogames to cell phones.

"One of the most important things we at Khronos can do is make sure there are compelling tool sets to generate content for the OpenGL ES accelerators," said Trevett.

Sony is a big backer of the group, having adopted OpenGL ES for its Playstation 3 console.

- Rick Merritt

EE Times

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