There are a lot of gadget nuts out there, but when it comes to the microchips, they don’t really get a lot of buzz. I think part of why they don’t get more attention, is because you have to have an advanced Engineering degree, in order to understand most of it. Even after hundreds of millions of dollars in branding, I still don’t think that I could tell you the difference between an Intel and an AMD chip. All I really care about is how fast my computer will run and whether or not I can download movies onto it.
As a consumer, it’s easy for me to tune these details out, but as a Technology Enthusiast, I know that these chips represent the forefront of the consumer electronics industry. Before the product launches at CES, before the beta testing, even before the prototype, you need that microchip. It may take years for the buzz to catch up, but the advances that we see today will be the hot products of the future. I can’t admit to understanding it all, but it’s exciting to see the foreshadows of what’s to come.
Marvell Technologies unveiled their own vision of the CE future today and I was lucky enough to sit in on a conference call for the unveiling. During the call, Nikhil Balram, one of the inventors behind the chip, fielded questions from reporters and described how this tiny little device is going to bring HDTV to standard definition downloads.
Marvell has named the new chip Qdeo (quiet video) and hopes to develop the brand into something consumers will recognize. At a very basic level, Qdeo allows you to up-convert standard definition video into an HDTV signal. There are of course DVD players on the market that already do this, but Marvell is trying to take this to another level by providing up-conversion features on all video content, not just DVDs.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of interest in portable video. While there are many different ways to get video on the go, most of them end up involving smaller/downgraded video files than what’s necessary for HDTV. This isn’t a problem if all you want to do is take high res content you’ve purchased on your TV and minimize it for a cell phone, but if you want to take content you’ve downloaded for your cell phone and put it on your big screen TV, then get ready for quality that looks worse than the camcorder movies that float around on bit torrent.
Because of bandwidth considerations, most portable content isn’t ready for prime time. While there are ways to buy HDTV content for an Xbox360, most downloadable video solutions tend to be compressed for speed instead of quality.
What Marvell’s technology is trying to solve, is the quality problem that consumers face, from having so many different video choices. In order to address this issue, they built an algorithm that can support up-conversion features regardless of the resolution of the original file.
During the presentation, I didn’t have an opportunity to see a video of the chip at work, but Marvell did have several photo examples of the technology in action and I could see a difference. Marvell has more examples on their website, if you are interested in seeing some visual demonstrations of the product at work.
The technology makes three major improvements to the video signal.
First, the chip helps to eliminate the rough edges that you’ll find in a lot of videos. If you’ve ever seen a low res clip on a big screen TV, you’ll know that when you increase the size of the screen, it makes it really easy to see the individual pixels in your content. These show up as uneven lines and make your video look like it’s composed of a bunch of blocks. With the Qdeo technology, they’ve figured out a way to automatically blend these pixels, so that it appears more natural.
Secondly, the chip helps to remove noise from the file. This helps to add more contrast to a video and makes it easier to focus on the subjects in the video. From a consumer standpoint, this is probably the most noticeable improvement. By removing a lot of the white noise, it helps to make the video more vivid and alive.
Finally, the chip includes an automatic adjusting feature for color remapping and contrast enhancing. This was probably my favorite feature during the demonstration. Normally, I have a tough time distinguishing between colors because I am color blind, but even I was able to see how dramatic of a difference there was between an untreated photo and the end product. I don’t know their secret sauce behind this feature, but the end result appears to take areas that are over exposed and shift that light to areas where there are lots of shadows. It also makes the colors more vibrant, but doesn’t adjust the color of flesh, so it prevents people from looking like Oompa Loompas.
For the launch of the chip, Marvell has partnered with Meridian iRIS, in order to create an iPod high definition converter that plugs directly into an HDTV. Once it’s hooked up to your TV, all you need to do is dock your video iPod and you should be able to see high resolution copies of whatever movies you happen to have on the device.
As the market for this new technology develops, Marvell is hoping to expand the functionality into HDTV DVD players, set top boxes, flat panel TVs and media bridge products.
It’s hard to really get a sense of how powerful the technology is without seeing real life examples, but I think that the chip would have the biggest impact for the television market. Because the end result will only be as good as the display technology, even great video signals can be comprised by the wrong television. When I asked Balram as to whether there was a difference in the quality of a Qdeo TV vs. a portable device that connects to a different set, he seemed to feel that it wouldn’t be that significant.
“at that stage, once you are doing the processing at the source device, you’re really bypassing the processing in the TV. So whether at one stage, it actually did the processing or didn’t, at other stages you are simply using it as a raw panel. So then you get into things like which companies make better panels compared to which ones.”
With a longer design time for televisions, don’t expect to see Qdeo in any HDTVs right away. For those who can’t wait, Meridian does expect to have their HD iPod dock available sometime in October. Once we start to see the early reviews come in, we’ll know how good this technology really is, but if Marvell delivers on their promises, it should be beautiful technology to see in action.