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Friday, October 26, 2001
VM Labs processor allows interactive features on DVD players

VM Labs Inc. has begun sampling its third-generation VLIW-based media processor, designed to bring high-end interactive features down to commodity DVD players. The fabless semiconductor company is also opening up its system architecture, called NUON, in hopes of turning it into "an open platform for the living room," according to chief executive officer Richard Miller.

With DVD becoming a commodity item faster than expected, Miller believes that releasing the VM Labs software development kit on an open basis will spur makers of games, codecs and other content to freely create applications for NUON-enabled DVD players. Such a movement could help consumer OEMs differentiate their products in ways other than cost, he said.

The strategy is another sign of the incipient fragmentation of so-called "enhanced" or "advanced interactive" DVD players and disks. New, optional formats now in development by companies such as InterActual Technologies Inc. and industry groups like the DVD Forum are planned for launch at Christmas, 2002.

Everyone is scrambling to add value to DVD players, as this market turns into both the hottest and the bloodiest battleground for consumer OEMs. The Consumer Electronics Association recently reported that year-to-date manufacturer-to-dealer sales of DVD players rose by 48 percent, reaching 7.5 million units by the end of September. In fact, the systems are so popular that September marked the first month that DVD player sales outpaced those of VCRs in the United States.

VM Labs' Miller made it clear, however, that his company has no intention of competing against the DVD Forum's plan for an optional, interactive DVD format. Instead, the extra Mips available on VM Labs' Aries 3 media processor make it ideal to respond to the evolution of the DVD platform, he claimed. Until an industry-wide interactive DVD standard is established, Miller said, the Aries 3 will let developers write compelling interactive DVD applications.

By doubling the peak processing power on Aries 3 to 3,000 million instructions per second (Mips), this third-generation NUON media processor will have "ample processing power for software developers to explore a new category of content and applications," said Pete Birch, executive vice president for business development at VM Labs, based here.

The company has shrunk the process technology for the third-generation device from 0.35 micron to 0.18 micron and added firmware enhancements, making it possible to comfortably design the Aries 3 into entry- to medium-range DVD player products, Birch said. The device is priced at $12 in sample quantities.

The Aries 3 is based on a unique 128-bit, four-way-parallel very long instruction word processor architecture. In addition to the video and audio decoding and trick-play functions, the device performs all system-management and CPU functions.

More specifically, Aries 3 features MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 program stream and video decode; MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 Layers 1 and 2 audio decode; 5.1-channel Dolby Digital audio decode; extended DVD trick modes; 32-voice wavetable synthesizer; MP3 decode; an integrated Content Scrambling System descrambling module; video scaling, and 3-D videogaming.

A hardware block placed on-chip to assist MPEG video decoding is designed to free up the bulk of the VLIW device's programmable processing power: 3,024 Mips at peak and 864 Mips typical. Aries 3 is capable of providing 432 million 32-bit multiply-accumulate operations and 1,728 million 16-bit MACs per second.

VM Labs is no newcomer to the DVD market. Toshiba and Samsung have been using the company's VLIW media processor and firmware package in their high-end DVD players since last year. And Aries 3 has already picked up a number of new DVD player design wins from multiple manufacturers, said Miller, but he declined to identify the companies.

VM Labs says it has waited to act on its plan to promote NUON as an open platform until all of its software development tools became stable and its media processor's cost came down. The company plans to make available, at, software tools composed of NUON libraries, sample code and documentation based around open-source tools such as the GNU compiler.

Previously, VM Labs granted Motorola Inc. a nonexclusive license to manufacture and sell NUON media processors, and Motorola became the first to incorporate NUON in a set-top box, its Streamaster. With the Aries 3 rollout, VM Labs will change that arrangement. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. will fabricate the new chips and VM Labs will sell it to OEMs.

Industry observers see the decision to open up the architecture as inevitable. "They'd definitely have to open the platform," said Michelle Abraham, senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group (Scottsdale, Ariz). "There hasn't been a whole lot of software out there yet" that takes advantage of NUON features.

However, James Grunke, VM Labs' vice president of new-media business development and operations, said that some popular DVD movie titles designed for NUON-enabled players are already out, including Bedazzled, The Matrix and Planet of the Apes.

Aside from movies, existing NUON interactive-content applications include several 3-D videogames, a Web browser and content viewers such as JPEG slide show applications.

Just as InterActual has used its proprietary PC-Friendly technology to add interactivity to DVD movies for viewing on a PC, VM Labs similarly has been adding interactive enhancements for movie playback on NUON-enabled consumer DVD players. When NUON-enhanced disks are inserted, these players enable various special features including a full-motion video thumbnail of each scene, a zoom function to magnify images, strobe functions to isolate and scroll through a series of video frames, and execution of interactive content written to VM Labs' NUON operating system. When a regular DVD player plays back such a NUON-enhanced disk, it gets all the regular DVD features but not the NUON ones.

It remains unclear, however, what kind of interactive content will draw consumers to NUON-enabled DVD. Although Aries 3 comes with high-performance 2-D and 3-D graphics capabilities with scaled video, trying to turn a NUON DVD player into a game machine could be deadly, warned In-Stat's Abraham.

"You don't want to go there," she said. "[Sony's] Playstation 2 and [Microsoft's] Xbox — both capable of playing back DVD disks — might make anybody else's efforts useless. Microsoft has so many software developers lined up for Xbox, and Sony owns the movie studio."

VM Labs is downplaying the potential of videogames as a primary application and instead is promoting the architecture's versatility.

"There has been no open platform for the living room in the last 10 years — maybe since Commodore 64," CEO Miller said. Every platform emerging since then as an interactive consumer platform — ranging from Atari and 3DO boxes to Sega and Nintendo consoles — has been a closed game system that entailed tightly controlled licensing arrangements between software developers and the platform owner.

Under VM Labs' new, open-platform scheme, developers can use a suite of free tools from the company to write applications targeted for the NUON OS. Programs can either be embedded in flash memory or loaded from DVD, DVD-R, CD, CD-R or CD-RW media, for execution by the Aries 3 within a DVD player.

VM Labs says it will provide compatibility-testing programs and logo certification to ensure that new applications run correctly on all NUON DVD players. The goal is to make it possible for applications created using the NUON software development kit to be distributed freely over the Internet.

The open architecture also means "freeing system OEMs from traditional IC life cycles," said Birch. Besides a suite of proven Core Mediaware libraries for the NUON OS provided by VM Labs, system vendors can use the software development environment to create their own codecs and custom features.

The Aries 3 media processor should position VM Labs to effectively compete against other DVD-player chip powerhouses such as STMicroelectronics, LSI Logic, Zoran and ESS, said Birch. Additional chips necessary to make a DVD player based on Aries 3 are two 64-Mbit SDRAMs, 2 Mbytes of flash memory, a video encoder and two to eight audio D/A converters.

Competitors' solutions are more highly integrated. STMicroelectronics recently announced two versions of its third-generation back-end solutions for DVD players. Priced at $13 and $14.50 in quantities of 10,000, the chips include a 60-MHz 32-bit ST20 processor, 2-kbyte instruction and data caches, 4 kbytes of SRAM, a hardwired MPEG-2 video decoder, an audio decoder supporting all the popular DVD audio standards, a video decoder that handles PAL, NTSC and Secam, and an integrated on-screen display unit.

Still, Birch maintained that "the only cost delta [for NUON] is one additional SDRAM and a video encoder. We think we have a credible solution. With Aries 3, we can bring all the high-end features and more at very little cost difference."

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