Low-end Android phones could get VR with new Imagination GPU

Imagination's Series8XE GPU is targeted at smartphones priced between $200 and $400

The company that provides GPUs to Apple's iPhones now wants to shake up the Android landscape by bringing high-quality VR experiences to low-end phones.

GPUs from Imagination Technologies are used in both iPhones and Android handsets. The company's latest PowerVR Series8XE Plus GPU will be installed in Android handsets priced between US $200 and $400.

The use of virtual reality in Android devices is growing fast. But most VR-capable phones, like the ones supporting Google's DayDream platform, are expensive because of powerful GPUs and high-resolution screens. Cheap VR headsets like Google Cardboard can be used with inexpensive phones, but the experience is uneven.

The Series8XE Plus will bring better graphics to low-end phones. It can handle full HD video at 60 frames per second, a frame rate required for a good VR experience on mobile devices.

The GPU will appear in Android smartphones starting next year. The graphics processor won't be installed in the iPhone, which instead uses Imagination's high-end PowerVR XT GPU.

Beyond VR, the Series8XE Plus also improves mobile gaming and video experiences. The GPU is up to four times faster than its predecessor, the PowerVR Series8XE, particularly in mobile gaming, Imagination claims.

But why not focus on the higher 4K resolution? Most budget smartphones don't have 1080p screens and will continue to rely on full HD video for many years, said Mark Dickinson, executive vice president for PowerVR at Imagination.

Imagination could have focused on higher resolutions like 4K, but that would have increased the size and cost of the GPU, Dickinson said. But if needed, Imagination can build a Series8XE Plus GPU capable of 4K.

The focus with Series8XE Plus was to improve the quality of pixels. Features like HDR (high-dynamic range) add depth to the quality of colors and pictures, and the new GPUs are built to render much better pixels.

Beyond gaming and video, the GPU is also targeted at visual computing. It supports image recognition and visual computing and works with machine-learning frameworks like Caffe and TensorFlow. That could make the GPU useful in cars, a market Imagination is targeting.

The GPUs are also targeted at TVs and other devices.

Imagination designs and licenses its GPU. Its marquee customer is Apple, which is also a minority shareholder. But Imagination has been losing market share to companies like Qualcomm, which offers the Adreno integrated GPU, and ARM, whose Mali GPU is being used by device makers like Samsung in smartphones and tablets.

Imagination is looking to gain some of that market share back, especially in the low-end smartphone market.

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