Dialog Semi's gambit on mobile 2D/3D chip
December 13, 2010 // Junko Yoshida
Dialog Semiconductor will enter a new phase of its long metamorphosis when it announces Monday (December 13th) a real-time 2-D-to-3-D video conversion IC designed for portable devices.
The product advances the vision of CEO Jalal Bagherli, onetime vice president and general manager of the mobile multimedia business unit for Broadcom and CEO of Alphamosaic. Bagherli parachuted into Dialog in the fall of 2005 and turned around the once-faltering company by focusing on the fast-growing handheld and wireless markets.
Dialog (Kirchheim unter Teck, Germany) traces its heritage back to 1981, when Silicon Valley-based International Microelectronic Products established its European operations. The German company became Dialog in 1989, first as a part of Daimler-Benz, then as independent power management ASIC specialist Dialog plc.
The company began diversifying its portfolio after Bagherli’s arrival. In the past 12 months alone, Dialog, while keeping its ASIC expertise, has added such standard products as low-power audio codec and driver ICs for next-generation mobile displays. The 3-D video conversion IC for mobile is scheduled for sampling early next year.
At the same time, Bagherli said that the company remains committed to its core competency, which is “managing power in all portable devices.”
Dialog today boasts a revenue track record of three years of quarterly year-on-year growth. “We’ve kept growing right through the recession, outpacing the industry, with 13 consecutive profitable quarters,” Bagherli said in an exclusive interview with EE Times.
The company’s fortunes are riding on the continued market growth of such end products as cell phones, media tablets, portable entertainment platforms and even personal medical devices. Given the rapidly expanding markets for such products, Dialog’s competitors are many and formidable.
In power management, Dialog competes with the likes of Maxim, STMicroelectronics and Texas Instruments. In the audio chip market, it battles with Cirrus Logic, TI and Wolfson. In 2-D-to-3-D conversion, Dialog expects to compete with application processors such as TI’s Omap.
In mobile display technologies, Dialog has developed drivers for Qualcomm’s Mirasol displays and E-Ink’s e-paper. But perhaps its gutsiest decision has been its decision to support passive-matrix organic LEDs (PMOLEDs), which are being positioned against Samsung’s active-matrix OLEDs.PMOLEDs are “cheaper than AMOLEDs,” and the passive display’s ability to be “transparent and flexible” holds promise for novel applications, Bagherli said. But PMOLEDs, which have no active transistor layer, “need to pick up a lot of smarts in electronics,” he said. So Dialog developed a PMOLED driver based on what it calls its SmartXtend technology, offering multiline addressing, precharge schemes and accurate dynamic current matching.
Dialog’s foray into 2-D-to-3-D conversion is not without risk. A number of chip companies are focused on delivering on-the-fly 3-D conversion for large-screen TVs, but Dialog’s CEO said the company is betting that the buzz around 3-D will “move from home TV to handheld devices in 2011.”
It’s a calculated gamble; Nintendo, for one, plans a big push in mobile 3-D early next year with its 3DS handheld, which will feature a 3-D screen and camera. With no all-in-one 3-D chip solution optimized for handhelds available on the market, Dialog’s conversion chip (which integrates full parallax barrier control, pixel formatter and driver) could stand out, positioning the German company to ride the crest of the expected 3-D wave for handheld game machines, smartphones and tablets.
Dialog’s DA8223 has a hardwired, dedicated architecture that puts no extra load on the host application processor and requires no external memory, Bagherli said. Describing the DA8223 as an accelerator, he said the chip can be plugged into existing portable devices, “retrofitting them relatively easily.”
The DA8223 converts 2-D still images or video frames into a “depth map” that separates picture elements into foreground and background pixels. It then renders each original 2-D pixel in real-time using two pixels (one for each eye). The DA8223 uses the depth map to determine the degree of separation, or shift, between each pixel; the greater the shift, the deeper the 3-D effect.
Dialog’s engineering team designed the DA8223 for displays that use parallax barriers to enable glasses-free 3-D viewing. The parallax barrier method uses an additional LCD display to create small slits that block the light between each eye. Because it can be switched off, it can enable both 2-D and 3-D image display.
The industry has seen 3-D mobile phone attempts go nowhere in the past, but the climate has changed, according to Bagherli.
For one, the industry has made heavy investment in recent years in parallax barriers, he said.
Real-time 2-D-to-3-D conversion will also mitigate the lack of 3-D content, but the key to successful 3-D mobile devices will be glasses-free viewing, Bagherli believes.
The DA8223 provides standard RGB 24-bit bus I/O supporting up to 1,024 x 600 screen resolution and a fully configurable dual parallax barrier controller with an integrated charge pump that drives portrait and landscape modes. Dialog said the chip will work with any display equipped with a parallax barrier filter.
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