Last week’s news that Apple is ending its reliance on Imagination Technologies’ PowerVR GPU designs for all iOS devices sent IMG’s stock price into a tail spin and has many people questioning the company’s ability to survive the shock. There seems to be an emerging consensus that Apple was planning this all along and, now that they have put their dastardly plan into action, Imagination is doomed; I subscribe to neither of these theories (you can see my reasoning in this blog post) and in fact, there are upsides to the situation that could result in some interesting benefits for mobile graphics as a whole.
The Apple contract has always been a doubled-edged sword for Imagination: for a company whose business depended on being way out ahead of the market, the constant pressure to put the brakes on and stay in line with the commercial realities of today has sapped their drive to innovate and resulted in a much more conservative approach to technology development. Freed from constraint, can they now start to deliver on some of the technology ambitions they had in the past? The answer is that they might, and they have been laying the groundwork for that for some time.
Imagination is sitting on some truly pioneering technology that they acquired when they bought Caustic Graphics a few years back. Real time ray tracing has been a dream of graphics hardware designers for decades now but the computing power to handle such a heavy and incoherent task has always lagged behind what was needed to compete with the ‘fake it and ship it” approach of raster graphics. This is for very good reasons, handling the heavy workloads in chunks that have been localized into triangles results in the kind of computational efficiencies that make GPUs practicable. All the quality and workflow trade-offs needed to preserve that optimization have been seen as worth it and it’s hard to argue with that point of view when you see the results.
The thing is, there is a lot of raytracing already being used to implement dynamic lighting and shadowing, it’s just being done on the CPU or as offline compute loads on the GPU, then baked and textured onto the rasterized graphics. There are huge quality, workflow and performance benefits to being able to handle that directly in the rendering pipeline and Imagination knows how to do that.
For mobile graphics in particular, performance within a strict power budget is the key to success and Imagination has demonstrated very advanced lighting and shadows at double the performance and half the power of the equivalent rasterizing technique. Even better, they have shown it running from within the immediate mode programming paradigm of current graphics APIs. Real time ray tracing AND OpenGL – game developer’s heaven! Also, as I reported in this article the technique is being quietly introduced into the major game engines. All they need is a deployed platform to turn it on.
This could be a major win for mobile graphics, and a major boost to indie game developers who will find their production budgets stretching much further with a whole asset creation step removed from the chain. It will take some determination from Imagination plus a mobile chip company with the nerve and ambition to drive the industry into a new era. I don’t know if these two things will come together but I know it’s possible and I certainly hope it happens.