You probably haven’t heard of Ambarella. But the quality of your hybrid digital camera and video camcorder is far better than it used to be because of the company’s chips.

Today, the company is announcing a new generation of iOne camera chips that will become the brains of next year’s batch of cool cameras and video recorders. And thanks to the triple-core processors that Ambarella is cooking up for Android devices, those new gadgets will have the ability to wirelessly transfer videos and photos to photo-sharing sites on the internet. And by making imagery easier to share, Ambarella could make those photos and videos far more useful to people.

The iOne is a system-on-a-chip (SoC), or a master chip that integrates all sorts of functions. It is aimed at being the best image processor available, able to process and record high-quality still images as well as 1080p high-resolution video. The SoC also includes other functions such as built-in 3D graphics, connections to separate wireless radio chips, and 3D TV imagery.


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Ambarella has been making camera chips for five generations, using the expertise of co-founder Les Kohn and Didier LeGall, both of whom where instrumental chip architects at video processing pioneer C-Cube Microsystems. (LeGall, executive vice president, is pictured, left, next to marketing chief Chris Day, right).

LeGall said in an interview that the designs have advanced so far that a single chip can serve as the brains of a hybrid camera that can produce both outstanding still images and great video. It can also operate on low power and transfer data wirelessly. Usually there is some kind of trade-off between these various functions.

“The iOne will fundamentally change the way consumers capture, create and share visual content,” said Fermi Wang, chief executive of Ambarella.

The iOne has three ARM processor cores, including a dual-core 1-gigahertz ARM Cortex A9 processor that has the horsepower to run Android applications. A third 533-megahertz ARM 11 processor handles real-time camera tasks and allows the camera to turn on in less than second. It also has a 3D graphics core from Imagination Technologies.

The chip can process still images up to 32 megapixels and can capture 5 megapixel images at a rate of 30 frames per second, or as fast as a movie. The cameras with Ambarella chips will also work great in low light and have minimal motion blur. With dual-stream encoding, the chips will be able to record HD video and upload a second stream at the same time over Wi-Fi. And the chips are also very good at image stabilization, or keeping the image steady and clear while the photographer is moving.

Samples of the chips are ready now, but cameras with the chips will likely appear in the second half of 2011. Ambarella has 350 employees. Current Ambarella chips are used in devices such as the Sony Bloggie video camera and a host of others.

Rivals include camera makers who create their own chips, such as Canon or Nikon, as well as other makers of image processors.

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