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Programmable core boosts processing On Demand

Posted: 01 Sep 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:vector signal processor? on demand microelectronics gmbh? h.264? mpeg? ip?

Intellectual-property licensing company On Demand Microelectronics GmbH is quietly making inroads into the digital TV market by leveraging the programmability of its synthesizable core.

The Austria-based company is pitching its vector signal processor (VSP) as a platform whose architecture can be configured and scaled to the requirements of a variety of digital TV chips. "The key value we bring is the ability to provide our customers with an architecture for a specific application that can be customized before tape-out," said Rumman Syed, director of business development at On Demand.

Typically, a DTV product comprises three basic parts: a demodulator to convert the transmission signal into a video stream; a video decoder for streams compressed in H.264, MPEG-2 and other formats; and an image processor for deinterlacing, scaling and noise reduction. On Demand has customized the VSP for the specific application requirements of each of those areas, said Syed. The company offers IP for a multiformat video decoder, IP for an image processor and IP for a DTV demodulator.

On Demand has thus far signed up two licensees for its technology. Both are "big players in flat-screen digital TVs," Syed said.

The two VSP licensees, whose business lies in post-processing rather than video decoding, will initially use On Demand's license for image processing. Beyond that, they plan to use the license to develop a programmable H.264 high-definition decoder that will replace standard MPEG-2 decoders, according to Syed.

The company's VSP technology is based on a scalable VLIW architecture. The VSP can be programmed using single-instruction, multiple-path (SIMD) commands to minimize program memory. It also uses multiple-instruction, multiple-path (MIMD) commands to guarantee full use of all parallel-processing units at all times. The designer can also configure the width of the data path to suit the accuracy of the application.

Separate paths

Although On Demand's IP blocks for image processing and video decoding are based on the VSP, they use two completely different data paths. The image-processing IP, for example, "requires an extremely high performance to process all the pixels within a tight time frame, while the video-decoding IP is more structured to deal with high data throughput," said Syed.

On Demand's VSP has aroused interest among image-processing IC experts, largely because of the growing demand for digital TV sets based on flat screens. Unlike a CRT-based TV, different flat-panel displays often demand more intricate tweaking in post-processing, scaling and deinterlacing. Rather than wait for a specific image-processing IC to be developed for a specific display, flat-panel DTV OEMs are looking for a programmable solution that allows them to improve image processing in software, said Syed. "That's where the VSP-based image-processing IP can come in."

Similarly, On Demand's VSP-based video decoder IP aims to meet the industry's increasing need for a programmable video decoder solution that is capable of handling not only MPEG-2, but also H.264 and VC-1. The decoder IP, however, is likely to face much tougher competition, since a number of DSP companiesincluding Analog Devices Inc., Equator Technologies Inc., Texas Instruments Inc. and Philips Semiconductorsare already offering programmable, multiformat video decoder solutions. Several others, like Broadcom Corp., Conexant Systems Inc., Sigma Designs Inc. and STMicroelectronics, are also developing partly hardwired, multiformat video decoder chips aimed at a lower-cost set-top market.

The general trend in the industry is toward the use of multiformat video codecs in consumer video products, acknowledged In-Stat/MDR senior analyst Michelle Abraham. "HD-DVD and Blu-ray are using MPEG-2, AVC [H.264] and VC-1. Satellite providers will be MPEG-2 and AVC, presumably. You could make a case that everyone going to AVC will be multicodec because MPEG-2 will still be on the chip," Abraham said. But she remained skeptical about the ultimate market size for genuinely programmable solutions, saying, "Programmability adds cost, so unless there is a need for programmability, they don't want to pay."

Scalable power

Nonetheless, the biggest claim to fame for On Demand's video-decoding solution is that its architecture can be scaled up to handle even power-hungry video decoders like the H.264 and obtain high-definition quality at 1,080i (interlaced) resolution. "There is no DSP available in the market with sufficient processing power to decode an HD stream," according to Syed.

In-Stat's Abraham agreed that no current programmable video decoder can do 1,080i for video streams compressed in H.264.

The video decoder's architecture consists of two processing engines: a stream processor and a video processor. Both are parallel-processing engines that can be built with any number of processing units. Since the number of parallel-processing units can be preconfigured, the resulting architecture can vary in processing power. This enables chip designers to tailor a processor to fit their power needs.

On Demand's licensing model is based on up-front payment and royalties. "Typically, an up-front payment can be in the range of between $300,000 and $700,000 for the VSP IP, and an additional $100,000 to $200,000 for the software libraries," Syed said.

On Demand's licensees are expected to have the first tape-out of VSP-based products this month or in November, depending on their progress, according to Syed.

- Junko Yoshida

EE Times

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