A new breed of media processor: Stream Processors, Inc. makes a splash at ISSCC ‘07

But will it change the status quo in the video chip market? Can programmable media processors finally break into volume video markets?

Despite having headlined more than a few chip conferences and garnering more than their share of ink in the press, programmable media processors have had a less noteworthy record in the video chip marketplace. Media processors have tantalized both digital video platform suppliers and the chip vendors who serve them with promises of delivering both cost-effective performance for today's codec standards, as well as future-proofing for tomorrow through simple in-the-field software upgrades.

Yet after several generations of media processor have come to the fore, the volume still pales compared to more conventional, fixed - or limited - function ASICs and ASSPs, which dominate in high-volume digital video consumer electronics. In retrospect, the disparity makes sense. In applications where standards are still in flux, a programmable approach like the media processor or DSP can help get a concept off the ground or a product out to market early. But when the dust settles and standards are in place, the ASIC or ASSP is better positioned to bring volumes up by driving costs down and, hopefully, returning some profit to the suppliers. The DVD player is a great example.

But what's most intriguing today is that the media accelerator's close cousin, the GPU, has in past years gone from fixed-function to programmable, and that's for the mainstream, high volume market. More than that, in just the past few quarters, GPU vendors AMD (ATI) and Nvidia have both delivered new GPUs which have adopted more general-purpose, stream-based processing architectures to do much more than just graphics.

All that brings us to an interesting question. If programmable, stream-processing chips can conquer the mainstream for graphics, could a stream-based media processor do the same for video? February's convening of the International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco provided a perfect forum to explore the answers, as the show saw several new video processors, including the public unveiling of Stream Processor, Inc.'s first product, the Storm-1 processor.