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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

3GSM: It's the interface, stupid - part III

The role of the mobile phone interface is changing. The Apple iPhone showed how important it was (see below for parts I and II), and now the chips are coming out to make it a reality.

So 3D is becoming a key part of handset design. As a result, the phones of the next few years will look very different to the flat, 2D menus-driven phones we have today.

Several vendors have launched 3D cores for mobiles, both at the high end for gaming but also through the feature phones for the User Interface (UI).

This move is the key, says Tony King-Smith, VP marketing at Imagination Technology, which supplies the MBX and MBXlite cores for the OMAP2 from Texas Instruments and the SGX core for the OMAP3. This is driving more software developers to use 3D in all sorts of different ways. This only becomes compelling when the technology moves down into the feature phones, he says, and then the ecosystem of software provides is vital.

This opens up the possibility of downloading different UIs to a phone depending on the operator look-and-feel or the user preference. NetDimension are using it to provide 3D mapping of building, both inside and out, linked to low cost navigation systems using both satellites and the cell sites. This can even be tied up with products, to take you straight to the handbag section of a store, for example, says Tetsu Hayasi, CEO of NetDimension and demonstrating the software with Imagination (left). “The experience is pretty complete, very smooth, and this navigation with fine grain textures is something the handset vendors are very, very keen to do over the next few years,” said King-Smith.

ARM and AMD are battling it out for control of this market.

AMD is licensing the 3D technology from its acquisition of ATI technologies to go into handsets. STMicroelectronics is the first to license the technology from AMD, including 2D, 3D and vector graphics core engines, as well as related software compliant with OpenGL ES 2.0 and OpenVG 1.0 standards, for its Nomadik applications processor family.

“Our extensive benchmarking research found that AMD delivers the highest quality graphics technology for handheld user interfaces and sophisticated applications such as GPS,” said Jyrki Hannikainen, general manager of ST's Application Processor Division. “Combining AMD’s leading graphics core with the proven strengths of our Nomadik leading-edge multimedia platform will not only drive interest with application developers, but will help feed the consumer appetite for visually rich 3D applications and multimedia.”

ARM’s latest Mali55 core also aims for this higher volume market, measuring under 1.4mm2 on a 90nm generic process, and providing full scene anti-aliasing up to 16x, to turn a quarterVGA screen into a high-cost VGA system for UI and gaming. “Mobile multimedia phones today rival the personal computers of ten years ago. Now, console-quality 3D graphics are transforming the mobile handset into a compelling gaming platform, and recent innovations are redefining the very way we interact with the UI,” said Ian Drew, vice president of Segment Marketing at ARM. “With the integration of the Mali processors into the ARM portfolio, we can now offer comprehensive 2D and 3D graphics solutions for a wide range of handsets – from low-cost phones to high-end mobile multimedia devices – and accelerate time-to-market.”

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