Texas Instruments Joins the Video Fray—Again

At the recent IBC show in Amsterdam, Texas Instruments announced its intention to capture a significant share of the video capture and delivery market, unveiling its DaVinci technology—a System-on-Chip (SoC) that combines several previously discrete technologies.

In much the same way it has dominated the cellphone industry, moving from simple digital signal processors (DSPs) to more robust SoCs such as the OMAP used by Nokia’s Symbian phones, TI expects DaVinci to help it move beyond niche video applications.

Until now, TI’s role in the streaming video market has been primarily limited to less-robust DSPs used to decode video in set-top boxes. TI was late to the game in this segment of the market and had to face several formidable competitors—Philips, Equator, and Sigma Designs. The rapid adoption rates for these competitors’ chipsets pulled TI back into the DSP decoder game in late 2003, with TI announcing support of the nascent H.264 codec at IBC that year. Yet TI also struggled, as competitors’ innovations in SoC technology--abetted by the notoriously steep learning curve associated with TI products--continued to dominate the IP-based set top box market. Only recently has TI managed to gain a respectable market share.

TI also has significant market share in another area of growing interest to streaming providers—digital cinema projection technology—having successfully licensed its digital light processing technology to many major projector manufacturers.

The DaVinci move is different, however, as it could move TI to a dominant position across the entire video acquisition and delivery chain. According to Gene Frantz, TI principal fellow and business development manager for DSPs, DaVinci is "a DSP-based system solution tailored for digital video applications that provides designers with optimized software, development tools, integrated silicon, and support to simplify design and stimulate digital video innovation in less time."

As with its other DSP offerings, TI is targeting the developer, not the consumer. Yet Frantz provides an idea of the types of products that DaVinci might be capable of creating, including "digital cameras that adjust to light and wait until all eyes are open before snapping the highest quality photo, wireless 3D gaming systems with motion-sensitive eyewear, and portable medical imaging devices that instantly diagnose critical situations and transmit data to hospitals."

"As these application scenarios demonstrate, mobility is always on the minds of manufacturers and video is never far from the minds of cellular network operators investing in new transmission infrastructures," observes Christine Perey, principal consultant, PEREY Research & Consulting, and co-author of Wainhouse Research’s report on personal mobile video communications on 3G networks. "If it can harness the power consumption challenges, TI could leap frog a number of technology adoption cycles with DaVinci by leveraging its numerous existing relationships with cellular device and infrastructure providers and replicating the OMAP strategy." 

Timing for the DaVinci roll-out appears to be right, as market consolidation between smaller players has begun. In June, Pixelworks, an Oregon-based company that focused on SoCs for the advanced display industry, acquired Equator Technologies and launched its newest SoC, aimed at acquisition and delivery of surveillance, videoconferencing, and internet protocol television (IPTV) solutions. At the same time, Sigma Designs has broadened its relationship with Toshiba, providing a Linux-based reference platform for consumer devices. Both Pixelworks and Sigma Designs, however, lack the financial resources and depth of products that TI possesses.

Philips, a more formidable opponent, has the financial resources to compete with TI and has the added benefit of having been in the IP-STB market for several years with its TriMedia chipset. The company recently announced an SoC platform, called Nexperia, which couples TriMedia with a MIPS processor.

Developers seem interested in the DaVinci platform as a way to shorten time-to-market.

"Our company provides customer driven digital video solutions that are chip and operating system agnostic," says Eduardo Perez, VP of marketing at Media Excel. "Having said that, our research and development team, customer feedback, and market research indicate that the introduction of Texas Instruments’ DaVinci processor will further reduce development costs and time-to-market for our CE customers."

Some in the digital media industry point out the skepticism that TI will face as it moves back into the digital media market. As Chris Carter, managing director at the Digital TV Consultancy in Windsor, England, noted recently: "TI entered the set-top box market twice before and then, both times, withdrew when the business was not as good as they thought. Customers want to have confidence that TI is going to be successful before they make a commitment."

That Catch-22 is high on the mind of TI’s Frantz. When a recent commenter to Frantz’s blog noted that TI’s DaVinci looked and felt like a bundling rather than true innovation, Frantz argued that TI’s approach opened the door to innovation on a larger scale.

"[The DSP] core brings stability and depth of understanding by the larger team of innovators," Frantz wrote. "The idea is that we will be able to innovate at the higher level by removing the requirements for the system designer to learn a new architecture, learn and debug a new set of development tools, [and] be able to write an efficient video codec. I believe we are at a point in the industry where we need to not be the focus of innovation and let our systems-level customer take on that role."

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