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Intel powers Imagination for 3D graphics

The chipmaker licenses the PowerVR MBX graphics and video core from Imagination Technologies in a move that may bring higher-end graphics to devices based on Intel architectures.

Intel has licensed PowerVR, a powerful embedded graphics and video core that potentially could be intergrated into chips for PDAs, set-top boxes or other consumer electronics.

The PowerVR architecture is best known as the 3D technology used--in an earlier incarnation--in Sega's Dreamcast gaming console. The deal is also a boost for Imagination, which lost the gaming console market when Sega discontinued Dreamcast, but has recently signed on such embedded giants as Hitachi and ARM Holdings.

Imagination did not reveal the terms of the deal, but said the cores were licensed to be integrated into Intel chips. Imagination will receive licence and development revenues initially, with the addition of royalties if Intel ships products using PowerVR. For its part, Intel said that is licenses technology from a number of companies and that licensed technology does not necessarily wind up in products released to the public. No products using the Imagination graphics core have been announced.

However, Imagination stressed that the license is designed for a specific market sector, although the company would not give further information. "This is not for a research exercise," said Nigel Leeder, Imagination's product manager for consumer IP cores in the PowerVR division.

Intel is the world's largest semiconductor maker, and Imagination sees the deal as a significant step. "This is another company taking up MBX, alongside of ARM and Hitachi," a representative from Imagination said. "This is an important announcement for us."

The PowerVR architecture is designed to be highly scalable, and the deal allows Intel to embed high-performance graphics into embedded devices from a PC-like set-top box to a handheld computer. Intel's XScale processor architecture currently powers Microsoft's PocketPC devices, and is also destined for more powerful gadgets such as Web tablets.

Imagination says the architecture is designed with the mobile gaming market in mind, but PowerVR is also being used for automobile information displays and high-end arcade systems.

Hitachi and a Japanese manufacturer called Sammy are building PowerVR MBX into displays for everything from pachinko machines to industrial equipment. ARM, Imagination and software company Superscape are using the technology to create gaming console-like 3D for mobile phones and PDAs.

Besides the mobile market, Intel could also add the technology to its embedded chipsets, which are low-powered versions of its desktop PC chipsets.

PowerVR is based on PC-style graphics technology, and has been redesigned with low-powered devices in mind, while keeping complex feature sets. "We have a fully featured 3D/2D graphics core, but in a silicon die size and with memory bandwidth appropriate for the embedded marketplace," Leeder said.

This makes the architecture ideal for companies looking to squeeze PC-like graphics effects into mobile devices, he said.

Another advantage over competing embedded graphics cores is PowerVR's low-memory bandwidth, a feature that is necessary to embedded devices with highly integrated systems.

ZDNet U.K.'s Matthew Broersma reported from London.