Imagination Technologies buys Caustic Graphics

Real-time ray tracing set to come in really small packages?

MANY OF YOU might not remember the glory days – well, ok, they weren’t that glorious – when PowerVR was a name that you had to consider when you bought a desktop 3D graphics card, but the company behind the technology is still alive and kicking, more so than ever and they are buying Caustic Graphics. Ok, hang on; let’s start from the beginning shall we, as neither of these companies is that well known outside of their respective circles, so let’s take a look at what’s going on here.

Imagination Technologies was founded as VideoLogic in 1985, a company that made one of the early 3D graphics cards and was something of a competitor with 3Dfx back in the days. Its PowerVR technology did things slightly different from the rest of the industry by using tile based rendering, something that meant that it could produce fairly low power graphics processors which required much less memory bandwidth than its competitors to perform at the same level. The Sega Dreamcast was one of the most prolific products to use a PowerVR GPU, although several PC add-in cards were made by various board partners, least not including Matrox in the early days.

Fast forward to today and the PowerVR technology is found in many high-performance ARM processors and even some of Intel’s Atom chipsets, specifically for the not overly popular Z500 series, but also in the CE3100 and CE4100 SoC’s. Imagination Technologies is an IP company these days and develops not only 3D graphics IP, but also various solutions for video encoding and decoding, display solutions and even complete SoC’s for a wide range of applications. If you own an iPhone or an iPad, then you’re using a product that features PowerVR graphics and so do most high-end TI OMAP and Samsung S5PC100 series based SoC’s as well.

Caustic Graphics on the other hand has a much shorter story, as the company was only founded in 2009 and the idea was to product a hardware solution that could perform real time ray tracing. Well, at least this was part of the idea behind the company, as Caustic didn’t just want fast ray tracing; they also wanted it to look as good as reality, if not better. No small mission for an unknown company to accomplish, but so far they’ve proven to be a company that can deliver some very impressive technology, despite maybe not quite reaching their goals yet. The early hardware they came up with managed to perform 20 times better than any at the time current solutions on the market, which in itself is impressive.

So the head scratcher here is, what does a company that makes graphics IP for low power SoC solutions have in common with a company that develops high-end ray tracing solutions? Well, we haven’t managed to quite figure that one out yet and even after contacting David Harold, the PR Director of Imagination, do we have a clear picture of what the plans for the future are. However, one thing is clear; Imagination is planning something big whatever it is. That said, no company would spend $27 million buying another company unless there were some very good reasons behind it, at least you’d hope that was the case. *cough*McAfee*cough*

According to Reuters, the Chief Executive of Imagination Technologies, Hossein Yassaie is quoted saying “We would not have acquired this technology if we did not believe we could get it into handsets,” which suggests that at some point in the future we’ll be seeing mobile devices that can perform real time high frame rate ray tracing. David Harold informed us that “[Imagination Technologies] have a proven track record of disrupting markets by bringing new and high-end technologies to consumer and embedded products: ray tracing is a key additional technology that traditionally has been regarded as the exclusive domain of specialised high-end markets and non-real-time applications. We will change that.”

He goes on to say “We don’t want to tip our hand but this acquisition opens up the potential for highly photorealistic imagery to reach new real-time applications and markets not possible previously, including consumer, via its integration with PowerVR, which as you know is the de facto standard for mobile and embedded graphics.” Interesting stuff indeed, but don’t expect to get this technology in your next iPhone and probably not even in the model after that one, as this is pretty complex stuff and it’s going to take time to develop.

We’re going to see if we can’t get some more details from Imagination Technologies in the near future once things have settled down a little bit. On top of that, Imagination Technologies are currently attending Siggraph Asia 2010 which is held in Korea, making it hard to reach the right people at the company for additional comments. It might also be a bit early to start talking about future products, as so far the bid has only been agreed upon and still needs to be officially approved before anything will come of it. We’ll leave you with a final statement from Hossein Yassaie from the official press release “The acquisition will enable us to accelerate our plans to be the leading supplier of all forms of graphics technologies in all markets and to continue our mission of delivering the most advanced graphics technologies to mainstream markets.”S|A

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