What happens when you take the powerful Cell microprocessor, the chip that sits at the heart of the PlayStation 3 games console, and put it to use inside a television? Toshiba is demonstrated just such a TV at this week's International Consumer Electronics Show and the results are impressive.
The Cell chip was developed by Toshiba along with IBM, Sony and Sony Computer Entertainment, and is dedicated to graphics processing. Each chip contains a single Power PC core and eight co-processors to make heavy-duty processing of video a breeze.
While Sony developed the chip for its PlayStation 3, Toshiba invested money in the project with an eye to using the device in consumer electronics products. Until CES, the company hadn't shown a Cell-powered consumer device, but a pair of flat-panel TVs on its booth at the trade show have changed that.
The first and perhaps most relevant benefit of putting the Cell inside a television is the ability to handle real-time upscaling of standard definition TV to high-def. With more and more HDTV channels, we get more and more used to the crisp, sharp quality offered by HD and that makes standard definition look poor. With a Cell-powered TV you'd be able to enjoy regular channels in higher quality much closer to that of HD, said Hiroaki Komaki, a specialist at Toshiba's core technology center in Tokyo.
The upscaling doesn't stop there. The same feature can be used to zoom in on an area of an HDTV picture, enlarge that single area, and then improve it's image quality. Imagine zooming in on a home movie of a sports event and getting closer to the action.
The Cell also makes it possible to easily navigate a number of video channels simultaneously. In a demo at CES, the chip was streaming 48 chapters from a standard-definition video file in real-time, with each appearing as a video thumbnail on the screen. Clicking on one of the clips would bring it up on the lower half of the screen, with 16 chapters still running in the upper half. Another push on the button would move it to full screen.
If the video streams were HD, it would be able to process six in real-time and display them on the screen, said Komaki.
Toshiba still hasn't decided exactly what features it will build into a Cell-based TV, nor has it decided when such a set will go on sale. One thing Toshiba isn't planning on doing is building a PlayStation 3 gaming system into its TVs. The chips may be the same but Komaki said such a combination isn't likely.
The company has been chasing the idea of Cell-based consumer electronics since it signed on with Sony and IBM to develop the chip in 2001.