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High-def camera is on-chip

Posted: 16 Jan 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Rick Merritt?

Three veterans of C-Cube Microsystems Inc. have reunited to form a startup that aims to bring consumer cameras into the high-definition era. Ambarella Corp. has a working 17mm2 SoC that handles H.264 encoding at data rates of 15Mbps and up while consuming just 1W.

The 216MHz A199 chip, now sampling in first-silicon form, can encode both 1,080-interlaced and 720-progressive video and pack an hour of it on a 4GB flash chip. Combined with falling prices of flash memory and CMOS sensors, the integrated device will open the door to hybrid digital still and video cameras that fit in your pocket, deliver high-def video and sell for less than $800, the company claims.

"We think we can create a low-cost device that changes the price and form factor for this high-definition camera market," said Fermi Wang, chief executive of Ambarella and former CEO of C-Cube.

Ambarella's 130nm SoC is going through a design iteration at Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and is expected to be in production by March.

The A199 handles encoding and all major camera control functions in a single die, including AAC audio and JPEG image codecs. An embedded ARM9 controls the camera, lens, CCD or CMOS sensor, and LCD module. The device also supports USB 2.0, a TV-out function, an IDE interface for hard drives, all major flash formats and 16-256MB of DDR2 memory.

Wang and chief technology officer Les Kohn were working as entrepreneurs-in-residence at Benchmark Capital when they came up with the concept for Ambarella. The duo had worked together at startup Afar Websystems, which designed the Niagara processor acquired by Sun Microsystems Inc. "We knew we didn't want to do another server chip," said Wang. So the two went back to their earlier collaboration around MPEG at C-Cube to examine the new H.264 spec. The fact that HDTVs are beginning to gain traction as flash prices are falling and digital cameras are becoming mature also played into their thinking. "All these things merged for us at one point," said Wang.

Ambarella analyzed cost vs. performance trade-offs for the more than 15 distinct tools that are part of the H.264 main and high profiles to determine an optimum implementation before starting work on the chip's architecture. "We had a very good idea of what we wanted to do before we started the design," Kohn said.

Many MPEG-4 profiles implement only a few compression tools and may actually be less effective than versions of MPEG-1 and -2. "For our customers, H.264 Main Profile is required and you have to implement all the tools," said Wang.

Ambarella is claiming "kind of a breakthrough in implementing HD encoding with significantly less memory bandwidth than competitors," said Kohn. The company has submitted a patent on its approach that can use as little as one 16bit DRAM.

In the implementation phase, the company took a rigorous approach to using low-power circuits and testing the device to make sure all unused blocks were turned off. "The VLSI design team was the best I've ever worked with," said Kohn. "Having worked with so many people at Afara and C-Cube, we knew who we wanted for this design, and that helped."

About half the startup's 75-person staff works in the Sunnyvale office. The team handles algorithms, microcode and VLSI design. A similar-size team in Hsinchu, Taiwan, focuses on systems architecture and support issues. The company's name refers to a fruit tree native to the Pacific islands that lie in between the two teams.

Ambarella supplies software to run the chip at average power levels as low as 450mW, at which encode resolution drops to D1 level. The programming environment is based on the MicroItron RTOS.

Competing merchant H.264 encoders can require eight to 32 chips and substantially more memory and power. A Sony second-generation HD camcorder costs as much as $1,800 and uses as many as three proprietary encoding chips, said Didier LeGall, Ambarella's executive VP and former CTO at C-Cube. "One of our big goals was to impress the Japanese and I think we succeeded at that," said LeGall, recounting recent meetings with OEMs there. "They control this market."

Ambarella's next-generation part will integrate more system-level features and sport lower power consumption, said Wang. "We want to be the best chip company for high-definition camera makers," he said. Longer term, the company could apply its H.264 techniques to other markets. Wang said he believes Ambarella could be profitable in 2007.

The startup decided against using Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media Video 9 codec because it has less encoding performance than H.264, Kohn said. Although Microsoft does not natively support H.264 playback on Windows yet, two companies have third-party players that do so, and others are coming, said LeGall.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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