Apple Inks Deal with Imagination for Ray-Tracing Chip Tech

Apple inked a multi-year licensing agreement with U.K. company Imagination Technologies, giving it “wider range” access to that company’s IP including a new ray-tracing technology. Observers believe the move signals that Apple plans on adding ray tracing to its chips “in the foreseeable future.” Ray tracing is a graphics technology that enables imagery to be created with real-world lighting, reflections and shadows, creating a much more photorealistic result. Nvidia first brought ray tracing to PC GPUs in August 2018.

VentureBeat reports that, within 10 months of Nvidia’s launch of ray tracing-enabled GPUs, “PC software was making good use of ray-tracing abilities,” with the capability appearing in “select laptops in mid-2019.” Ray tracing is also anticipated “to be a major feature in Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X game consoles later in 2020.”

VB notes that ray tracing will next appear in mobile chips, and that “augmented reality will be a key beneficiary of mobile ray tracing.” With the tech installed on mobile devices, the user wearing AR glasses or looking at a screen will be able to “walk around virtual objects that appear to be completely real — down to the way they reflect or absorb light.”

Also potentially possible will be “ray-traced virtual cars … [reflecting] the physical showrooms where users are viewing them through AR glasses … [and] ray-traced virtual humans.”

Qualcomm is Apple’s biggest competitor in mobile ray tracing. That company hired ray-tracing engineers in 2018. Imagination, meanwhile, “has apparently been developing its system for eight years, and plotted a course for mobile ray tracing that works on a device, but could enhance visual quality using 5G and edge cloud processing.”

Last year, Imagination stated that its technology will “become commercially available early in the 5G era,” and was already in talks with an “interesting pipeline of companies.”

But it might not come to fruition as quickly as that. Qualcomm, in discussing Snapdragon 865 last month, noted that “every new system-on-chip goes through a multi-year design, engineering, and manufacturing process, such that any chipmaker interested in including a mobile ray-tracing solution in 2020 would likely have needed to have the technology nearly finalized in 2017.”

VB also opines that, “it’s entirely possible that there will be first, second, and third generation mobile solutions with varying levels of performance and fidelity, beginning with larger phones and tablet-sized devices before shrinking down into smaller phones and glasses.”

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