Upstart aims to bring HD camcorders to the masses

Thinking of buying an HD camcorder? Wait. They might cost a heck of a lot less next year. Photo: Chips for low-cost HD video cams

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
High-definition consumer video cameras are tough to find these days and cost around $1,800. But next year, you might be able to grab one for $799, according to a camera chip upstart.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Ambarella has devised a family of multicore microprocessors that it says can compress and process HD video efficiently and cheaply. The company's chips could be incorporated into a video camera selling for around $799 or into digital still cameras, which would become capable of taking high-resolution stills (8 megapixels or so) as well as TV-quality video.

The company will show off the technology at the Computer Electronics Show kicking off on Jan. 5 in Las Vegas. Three major camera makers have already begun to build experimental cameras using Ambarella's chips.

"Two out of the three have fairly solid product plans," said Didier LeGall, executive vice president of Ambarella. "There is a very good chance of products showing up in Q2."

Ambarella's chip

Formed in 2004, Ambarella entered the market amid major shifts in the digital camera and video camera world. For years, camera makers such as Sony and Canon stocked their products with in-house silicon.

The skyrocketing cost of developing and manufacturing chips, however, has forced many to begin adopting third-party microprocessors or imagers (the chip that captures light) from companies such as Texas Instruments and NuCore.

"They want to continue to select their own solutions, but when they see an integrated solution that costs less and consumes less power, they don't have a choice," said Fermi Wang, Ambarella's CEO.

The technical demands of consumers also continue to escalate, putting further pressure on camera makers. Tape is on its way out. In Japan, nearly 85 percent of cameras on the market today rely on flash memory, hard drives or built-in DVD recorders to store video.

Demand has also increased for hybrid cameras that combine both high-quality stills with TV-quality video. To date, most cameras either have good still quality and marginal video or vice versa. Samsung released a novel camera to get around this problem; it comes with two lenses and two separate optical system.

While the two-in-one solution works, other camera makers have not followed. Researchers at Micron Technology and other companies have said the hybrid problem can be conquered through advances in microprocessing and image capture.

The increase in sales of digital TVs and programming has made HD the next check-off item for camera makers. Unfortunately, it's not easy to squeeze the functionality into a consumer camera. Encoding and decoding H.264 video (the standard for HD) requires far more complexity than other video streams, making the chips difficult to create. HD also gobbles up a lot of hard drive and memory space.

Partly as a result of the difficulties of compressing HD, not many high-definition consumer cameras have hit the market. Sony released one last year for more than $2,000. It sells for $1,799 today at places like CompUSA.

Ambarella's conviction that it can bring down HD prices with its chips could have to do with its executives' backgrounds.

The founders already have experience in video and the multicore chips. Before becoming CEO at Ambarella, Wang was chief executive at Afara, a multicore chip designer that got scooped up by Sun Microsystems.

Sun Microsystems this month unfurled its UltraSparc TI chip with eight cores that was largely derived from an Afara design. Les Kohn, Ambarella's CTO, served as chief technology officer of Afara. (Before Afara, Kohn worked at Sun and was one of the architects behind the UltraSparc I).

"Kohn's widely credited with the concepts behind the UltraSparc T1," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. "He's a pretty sharp guy."

DeGall, meanwhile, served on the MPEG-video standards body from 1988 to 1995.

Ambarella's basic chip contains a separate processing core for video designed by the company. System management functions are handled by an integrated ARM processor. Integrated interfaces then connect the core chip to an imager (the chip that captures light from the outside world), LCD (liquid crystal display) screens and other peripherals.

So far, the company plans to release three versions. The A199 will provide full HD recording capabilities. It runs at 216MHz and burns about 1 watt. The A150, which also runs at 216MHz, provides resolutions more akin to standard TV and will be aimed at digital still camera makers. The A100, meanwhile, runs at lower speeds but consumes less power.

Ambarella was founded in February 2004 and released its first sample chips in October 2005. Financial backing comes from venture firms Walden International, Benchmark Capital and Matrix Partners. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., the giant foundry, has agreed to manufacture the chip on its factory lines.

The name, by the way, has nothing to do with Jane Fonda in a space-age bathing suit. Ambarella is a type of fruit tree that grows on Pacific islands halfway between Asia and North America. Ambarella splits its operations between the U.S. and Taiwan.