from the desk of Spectrum's Japan correspondent John Boyd:
Downsizing the Cell chip for consumer use
Having put so much time and sweat, not mention resources and cash, into developing the Cell chip, more formerly known as the Cell Broadband Engine, Toshiba Corp. is searching for ways to use the darn thing. Same goes for Toshiba''s two co-developer partners IBM Corp. and Sony Corp. The latter, of course, uses the powerful Cell chip to produce the fantastic graphics on its PS3 video game console, but as for Toshiba, it has only been able to produce off-beat prototype applications at industry trade shows in an effort to demonstrate the chip''s impressive processing muscle. At CEATEC Toshiba did much the same thing, but this time on a newly unveiled, pruned down derivative of the Cell chip called the SpursEngine, the moniker coined from Synergistic Processing Unit Real Time Streaming.
As Spectrum's Sam Moore explained last January in his article "Multimedia Monster," the Cell chip incorporates eight RISC processing cores that go by the name of Synergistic Processing Elements (SPEs) and these work together with a controlling main power-processing element (PPE). But this is serious overkill for say incorporating into a notebook PC or for use in consumer electronics goods. So with an eye on major markets Toshiba has ditched the PPE and four of the SPE core elements, while at the same time
has added an MPEG-2 encoder and decoder, as well as a H.264 encoder and decoder to come up with a next-generation graphics co-processor the SpursEngine.
When this device is fully adapted to work with any standard microprocessor Toshiba says it will enable end users and consumers to enter the emerging era of stream processing: essentially the world of parallel processing at far greater efficiencies and speeds than can be achieved with today''s graphics processor and standard CPU combinations. Toshiba is betting that stream processing will soon become the norm as more products and applications go high definition and the use of 3D images increases.
Toshiba has fabricated the SpursEngine on a single chip and expects to begin sampling by the first half of next year. The current prototype operates at a clock speed of 1.5 GHz, consumes between 10 and 20 watts in power and utilizes the speedy Rambus XDR DRAM memory designed to handle high data high volume transfer rates. It is also designed to work with the PCI Express computer expansion card standard.
At CEATEC Toshiba had the prototype chip incorporated into several of its laptop PCs to demonstrate a number of SpursEngine applications. One of these was the use of hand gestures to control the PC''s interface. Sitting in front of a webcam mounted on the PC, I made a fist and image recognition software processed the image then in real time I could select (but not activate) video control icons on the PC''s display such as play, forward and backward simply by moving my fist. In order to ''push an icon button'' I then made a thumb up gesture, and the video began to play. A third gesture of an open palm, would cause the video to stop.
Toshiba muses that possibly one day, with SpursEngines and webcams incorporated in selected appliances, we would be able to throw away our remotes and simply use hand gestures to control TVs, air conditioners et al. No doubt this news will excite remote-use challenged couch potatoes around the globe.
Another demonstration produced real-time face morphing. Again, sitting down in front of a webcam mounted on a PC, an image of my face appeared on the screen and then my hair was transformed into various styles and colors. I could move my head from side to side to admire the beautiful images and the morphed face also moved accordingly, if a little jerkily. The same application also overlaid makeup on my face with the same affect.
All this doesn''t mean that Toshiba is lessening its interest in the original Cell chip. On the contrary, it will shortly be shipping an upgraded version of the Cell Reference Set first released in September 2005. It consists of the Cell chip, a circuit board with peripheral chips and peripheral devices such as DVD and hard drives, a power supply, as well as operating systems, middleware and software development tools. It aims to cut development time, simplify testing and reduce costs for developers of Cell chip applications. They clearly could do with a little help.