Will Apple Inc. Use This New Technology in a Future iPhone?

This Apple supplier recently demonstrated an impressive new chip technology, but will the iDevice maker be interested?

Ashraf Eassa
Ashraf Eassa
Jan 14, 2016 at 9:30AM
Technology and Telecom

Struggling graphics intellectual property vendor Imagination Technologies (NASDAQOTH:IGNMF), whose graphics processors power all of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) current iDevices, has been promoting a new family of graphics processors, known as PowerVR Wizard, for quite some time.

These graphics processors are very similar to the mainstream PowerVR processors (found inside the Apple A-series chips, as well as others), but with a key addition: They feature hardware dedicated to performing a type of 3D graphics rendering known as "ray tracing" in real time.

This technique, which is used fairly extensively in offline (i.e., not in real time) rendering applications, can deliver more realistic image quality compared to the traditional graphics rendering techniques. One major drawback, however, is that ray tracing is generally very computationally expensive.

Adding dedicated hardware to perform ray tracing should serve to alleviate that problem, however.

The question that I think the investment community should be asking, though, is whether Apple is likely to adopt this technology in future A-series processors or not.

Why does Apple matter so much?
Although it is true that Imagination provides graphics processor designs to chipmakers other than Apple, I don't believe that something like Imagination's PowerVR Wizard will be able to gain significant traction in non-iOS mobile devices.

In order to be able to take advantage of the ray tracing capabilities of the PowerVR Wizard graphics processors, game developers will likely need to add explicit support for the technology for certain rendering effects.

Given that Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and ARM Holdings (NASDAQ:ARMH) (via its major partners) ship the vast majority of total mobile-oriented graphics processors, it's hard to imagine that most Android game developers will want to put in the time and effort to support this technology that is proprietary to Imagination.

Apple, however, is different. It is the only vendor of iOS-based devices and its app ecosystem generates enough revenue for developers that if it adds an interesting new hardware feature, it might be worthwhile to some developers to take advantage of it.

However, just because adoption of this technology on iOS could be easier than on alternative platforms doesn't mean that developers will find going through the trouble of implementing it all that worthwhile, especially as traditional graphics processors become increasingly capable each year.

Imagination expects production deployments in two to three years
All in all, the PowerVR Wizard technology seems quite interesting, but it's not clear to me at this point that the technology will become popular enough to be the "game changer" that Imagination Technologies touts it to be.

The graphics IP vendor said in its most recent investor presentation that it is seeing "significant interest in licensing" for this technology and that it expects that products utilizing the technology will show up within the next two to three years.

Although I would like to see this technology -- or a similar technology from another graphics processor maker -- succeed as the image quality improvements could be quite nice, I remain skeptical that it will ultimately see widespread adoption by major clients in the mobile market.

Indeed, what makes things even more difficult for Imagination's PowerVR Wizard technology is that it faces the classic "chicken and egg" problem. Without deployments of the technology in high volumes, it will be hard to attract developer interest. And without developer interest, chipmakers may be hesitant to use this technology in place of more traditional graphics processors.

It will take a company like Apple, which controls both the hardware and software, to make Imagination's PowerVR Wizard technology a success. We'll see in two to three years' time -- when Imagination expects the technology to start rolling out in commercially available products -- whether Apple will hop on board.