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Graphics chip designer Imagination Technologies may have been shut out of providing GPUs for Apple’s iPhones and iPads, forcing the company to sell itself off, but its graphics IPs — notably including ray tracing technologies — remain valuable. That’s why Imagination has decided to license its ray tracing IP to other companies, EE Times reports, enabling chipmakers such as Apple to bring the cutting-edge rendering feature to mobile devices for the first time.

According to the report, Imagination’s scalable ray tracing system is capable of enabling the light ray-based rendering feature within a range of power and thermal constraints, including system-on-chip designs. This is a significant achievement, given that ray tracing GPUs for PCs generally demand fan cooling and serious power supplies, though they tend to operate at higher-screen resolutions. Imagination says its IP was developed specifically for power efficiency and delivers billion-of-rays-per-second rendering, matching “much larger and less power-efficient solutions.”

The key application of ray tracing in mobile devices may be augmented reality, as the rendering technology is specifically meant to create photorealistic light, transparency, and shadows for complex and textured objects — items that AR can then superimpose on the real world. Wearing a pair of AR glasses or looking at a screen, you could walk around virtual objects that appear to be completely real — down to the way they reflect or absorb light.

Imagination believes ray tracing has game-changing potential for 5G devices, akin to the changes ARM processors wrought in the mobile sector in the 2000s. “In a 5G world,” explained a spokesperson, “ray tracing could potentially be disruptive. It could offer the opportunity to have a radically different model of what the handset [could be like].” Some of the processing could conceivably take place in the cloud with ultra low 5G latency, while other processing was happening directly on the device.

The company’s ray tracing portfolio includes over 220 patents and applications, and vendors don’t need to use its PowerVR graphics processors to license the IP. While the licensing initiative has just begun, that means companies such as Apple could adopt the technology despite creating their own graphics chips, bringing ray tracing to mobile devices fairly early in the 5G era. Imagination says it’s already in licensing talks with “an interesting pipeline of companies that represent both traditional and novel markets.”


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