Toshiba begins sampling Cell-chip derived SpursEngine

Toshiba has begun sampling its SpursEngine; a graphics co-processor based on the processor cores used in the Cell chip.

Toshiba has taken the final step towards launch of a high-performance chip derived from the powerful Cell processor that powers Sony's PlayStation 3 games console. This week it began offering samples of the chip, called the SpursEngine SE1000, to electronics companies ahead of a commercial launch likely later this year.

The SpursEngine is a co-processor -- that's a chip designed to sit alongside a main processor in a system and handle heavy jobs like real-time graphics processing and video manipulation.

Inside the chip are four processor cores of the same type used in the Cell chip and a hardware codec for encoding and decoding high-definition MPEG2 and H.264 video streams. It runs at 1.5GHz and consumes between 10 watts and 20 watts of power, said Toshiba.

A demonstration of the SpursEngine at last October's Ceatec show in Japan provided a taste of the kinds of things it can make possible.

The chip was loaded into a laptop PC that was also receiving an image from a video camera. When someone sat down in front of the camera the SpursEngine was able to take the video image and in real-time simulate a new hairstyle or make-up. The system worked in three dimensions so as the person moved their head the computer-generated new hairstyle on the screen moved to match their head's angle and direction. Such real-time processing is difficult to do with a less capable processor.

With a supply of the sample chips companies will now be able to begin working on products that make use of the processor.

Toshiba anticipates a good market for the SpursEngine and has set a sale target of 6 million chips during the first three years on sale. The sample chip costs US$98 and Toshiba expects the commercial chip will sell for about US$50 in bulk quantities.

Among the first SpursEngine-based products are likely to be computer graphics cards. Toshiba said Tuesday that it has formed partnerships with Corel, CyberLink and Leadtek on hardware and software products that will make use of the power of the chip.

To help developers Toshiba said it will offer a reference kit that includes a PCI Express reference board and middleware APIs. A development environment including compiler, debugger and performance monitor will also be offered.

The development of the SpursEngine and this final step towards launch is a big moment for Toshiba.

It began laying the groundwork for the chip in 2001 when it teamed with Sony and IBM on development of the Cell microprocessor. For Sony the Cell was always about the PlayStation 3 but Toshiba's involvement from an early stage had living room consumer electronics products as a target.

Both Sony and Toshiba have said in the past that they plan to bring Cell technology into the consumer electronics devices. Sony has yet to show any such prototype products but Toshiba used this year's CES show to unveil a prototype TV with a Cell chip. The Cell is a step-up from the SpursEngine and includes eight processor cores plus a main processor. The TV was able to handle multiple TV streams simultaneously and realtime upscaling of video images.

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