Imagination plans new MIPS CPU, PowerVR GPU as it looks to bounce back

Imagination refocuses its business and looks to diversify in IoT, automotive, and VR

imagination technologies powervr in iphone 6s
Peter Sayer/IDG News Service

It's been a rough year for Imagination Technologies. The CEO resigned in February, layoffs followed in the next month, and the cloud of a takeover hung over the company with rumored negotiations to purchase the company.

The company is best known as a provider of PowerVR GPUs for Apple's iPhone and the MIPS CPU architecture, which competes with Intel's X86 and ARM. Imagination has its eyes set on a strong 2017 by taking an approach much like Intel did last year and refocusing on areas of growth, which include graphics and the internet of things.

Imagination next year will release new PowerVR and MIPS chip designs, with the goal of driving growth in those areas. Imagination is following the path set by chip companies ARM and Intel, which have refocused their business around IoT.

The chip designer has seen success in areas like set-top boxes, automotive tech, and networking, and it will continue to focus on those areas. But Imagination has the assets to succeed in emerging areas like virtual reality, and its technologies are already being used in VR headsets.

Chip design business model

Imagination has a business model similar to ARM's: It designs chips and licenses the designs to companies. Next year, Imagination will release the new Series8XT graphics processor, which will be targeted at a range of devices, including high-end phones and VR headsets.

Apple, which is a minority shareholder in Imagination, could be one company licensing the Series8XT GPU. Apple tweaked the previous Series7XT used in the iPhone 7 and has used PowerVR technology in all iPhones to date.

Imagination also wants to regain share in the mobile market as it expands the Series8XE graphics processor into low-end and mid-range phones, said Graham Deacon, senior director of business operations for PowerVR.

That's a market Imagination has lost, with competitive GPUs from ARM and Qualcomm taking share. Imagination introduced Series8XE earlier this year, and the technology is reaching low- and mid-range devices.

The goal is for Series8XT to be a harbinger of many new technologies, but all the GPUs will cram in more performance, Deacon said.

New opportunities

The PowerVR GPUs could find a place in infotainment systems and autonomous cars. There's a fair amount of research being done to tweak the GPUs for machine learning, Deacon said. There's also an opportunity in artificial intelligence, and Imagination is developing technologies and algorithms to tap into artificial intelligence uses, Deacon said.

Imagination also plans to release new MIPS CPUs in the next year. MIPS CPUs have lost market share to ARM and Intel in the IoT market, but interest remains in the CPU architecture for cars, data centers, networking, and IoT devices.

The company's strategy is to go after the massive volume opportunity in IoT and networking, rather than go after mobile application processors, said Steve Evans, vice president for business operations at MIPS.

ARM has dominated the mobile device market in recent years. Intel recently quit making mobile CPUs, and MIPS hasn't found success. Only a handful of mobile handsets and tablets have used MIPS CPUs.

But MIPS survives in other markets. Mobileye, which develops autonomous driving systems for cars, already uses MIPS CPUs. There are also many IoT devices, like low-speed LTE modems from Sequans and Altair, using MIPS CPUs.

The company is also pitching the MIPS CPU for robots, drones, and other industrial applications. MIPS CPUs are also being used in wearables, particularly products developed in China.

Imagination has targeted the MIPS CPU at servers in the past but with little success. But the fastest I6500-class CPU is comparable to the top-line ARM processor and is doing well, Evans said. While main CPUs in servers may be based on x86, there's interest for MIPS CPUs in the data-plane element, and companies like Broadcom and Cavium are making networking processors based on MIPS.

Drones and robots

Combining PowerVR and MIPS could provide a powerful chip combination for drones and robots. MIPS can provide the multi-core processing power, while PowerVR will provide the visual computing element, Imagination executives said.

As the company looks to diversify into new markets, the cloud of getting acquired will hang over their head. But it's a public company with multiple shareholders, and it will continue focusing on what it does and won't be distracted, said David Harold, a company spokesman.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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