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Improved display processing tech featured in mobile devices

Posted: 07 Jan 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Pixelworks  mobile device  display processing  Pixelworks 

At this years' International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), one of the upcoming highlights is how the motion video quality of movies and NFL football games, displayed on smartphones or tablets, can be enhanced with display processing technology. The demonstrations will include side-by-side video quality comparisons of mobile devices, with and without display processing, at Pixelworks' suite in the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

Pixelworks, a company known for enabling very high-quality images on gigantic 4Kx2K Ultra High Definition TVs, claims to be extending its principles of video display processing to 5in smartphones and 6in to 10in tablets for the first time in the industry.

"You will see pretty impressive differences," Richard Miller, SVP of Pixelworks, told EE Times.

Pixelworks is betting on an on-going market shift that is turning a so-called "third screen" (mobile display) into many consumers "first screen" (TV).

More and more people no longer think twice about treating their media tablet as their primary TV-viewing screen. They cuddle up with their tablet on a sofa or in bed, simply to watch a movie or a TV show, or catch a football game on the go, more often than they might readily admit.

The irony, Miller said, is that the display processors now commonly used in every HDTV and UHDTV set have never been included in mobile devices.

Pixelworks hopes that 2014 will be the first year for content owners and mobile device manufacturers to start exploiting mobile video display processing as a new battle line to differentiate their offerings and consumers' mobile video viewing experience.

On a very high-quality mobile display, such as Retina display, the industry consensus is that "you can't see pixels anymore." But let's not forget that this claim applies just to still images. Motion video is another matter.

Typical issues with moving video such as judder, motion blur, contrast, sharpness and color artifacts can be even more pronounced, and "look objectionable to human eyes," on higher resolution mobile displays, according to Miller.

In order to display content, movies at 24Hz or sports at 30Hz, on a 60Hz mobile display, there are only two ways to adjust the mismatch, said Miller. One is "frame repeat," showing the first frame twice and the second frame three times in case of 24Hz movies, or doubling every frame for sports. Another is using temporal interpolation, essentially guessing where the pixel goes next without repeating frames, based on Motion Estimation and Motion Compensation (MEMC) technologies. MEMC is a well understood technique, but there are many different ways to do it.

Pixelworks' portfolio of video display solutions includes its own patented MEMC and unique Frame Rate Conversion (FRC), which the company claims significantly reduce judder and motion blur while increasing the sharpness of motion video.

Simply slapping a separate display processor onto a smartphone or tablet won't solve the problem, however. Mobile devices face additional issues such as power and memory bandwidth, explained Miller.

Mobile device manufacturers probably don't want to do MEMC entirely in software on a multicore multiprocessor mobile SoC, either, because memory bandwidth is such a precious commodity.

While Pixelworks is not announcing a new product at CES and isn't giving out details of how it did it, the company has come up with "a solution that reduces the system-level power and improves bandwidth memory," claimed Miller.

To date, the market has yet to see a mobile SoC integrated with MEMC, even though the industry is acutely aware of the issue.

Look no further than Qualcomm's acquisition of video IC design teams from Integrated Device Technology Inc. in September 2011. The deal covers the transfer of IDT's Hollywood Quality Video (HQV) and Frame Rate Conversion (FRC) Video Processing product lines and certain related assets to Qualcomm.

Imagination Technologies reportedly has an MEMC portfolio, but it's not known how up-to-date it might be.

The fact that Pixelworks completed a $10 million equity offering last summer might not have escaped astute investors' notice, either. Reporting the company's third-quarter financial results, Bruce Walicek, president and CEO of Pixelworks, talked about "a number of other significant milestones" the company achieved during the quarter, including "a significant licensing engagement, initial samples of our co-development chip, and completion of a $10 million equity offering" that he said strengthened the balance sheet.

NXP Software, with its Philips heritage, is another company attuned to the issue and eager to fill in the "experience gap between content and [mobile] screen." The company is pitching its video sharpening software algorithms to mobile platforms.

The fact that so many embattled consumer video chip companies have already exited the TV SoC business (Broadcom, Trident, Zoran, CSR, etc.) has led to unintended consequences: the dispersion of the knowledge base on MEMC technologies (along with engineers who developed them) all over the market. As running a profitable TV business has gotten harder, technology vendors' investment in MEMC IPs has also dried up.

Backed by 15 years of display processing experience and a large portfolio of MEMC and FRC IPs, PixelWorks has been mining an emerging UHDTV market in which pixel density makes MEMC a must-have technology.

But the company isn't stopping there.

Pixelworks hired Miller 18 months ago, specifically to bring a mobile focus to the company's technology. Miller's mobile background includes serving as CTO at PortalPlayer, where he also led the company's Cellular Platform group prior to its acquisition by Nvidia in 2007.

Pixelworks is counting on content owners and vendors of tablets and smartphones attending the CES to compare the not-so-optimal video on their existing mobile device to new gadgets with display processing technology. The quality of mobile displays today has by far outpaced the quality of the content on mobile screens, and the industry's fresh challenge, and opportunity, is to close the gap.

- Junko Yoshida
  EE Times

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