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Alive 4
         VM Labs processor allows interactive features on DVD players
                            By Junko Yoshida
                           Source : EE Times

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - VM Labs Inc. has begun sampling its third-generation
VLIW-based media processor, designed to bring high-end interactive features
down to commodity DVD players. The fabless semi-conductor company is also
opening up its system architecture, called NUON, in hopes of turning it into
"an open platform for the living room," according to chief executive officer
Richard Miller.

With DVD becoming a commodity item faster than expected, Miller believes
that releasing the VM Labs software development kit on an open basis will
spur makers of games, codecs and other content to freely create applications
for NUON-enabled DVD players. Such a movement could help consumer OEMs dif-
ferentiate their products in ways other than cost, he said.

The strategy is another sign of the incipient fragmentation of so-called
"enhanced" or "advanced interactive" DVD players and disks. New, optional
formats now in development by companies such as InterActual Technologies
Inc. and industry groups like the DVD Forum are planned for launch at
Christmas, 2002.

Everyone is scrambling to add value to DVD players, as this market turns
into both the hottest and the bloodiest battleground for consumer OEMs.
The Consumer Electronics Association recently reported that year-to-date
manufacturer-to-dealer sales of DVD players rose by 48 percent, reaching
7.5 million units by the end of September. In fact, the systems are so
popular that September marked the first month that DVD player sales outpaced
those of VCRs in the United States.

VM Labs' Miller made it clear, however, that his company has no intention
of competing against the DVD Forum's plan for an optional, interactive DVD
format. Instead, the extra Mips available on VM Labs' Aries 3 media processor
make it ideal to respond to the evolution of the DVD platform, he claimed.
Until an industry-wide interactive DVD standard is established, Miller said,
the Aries 3 will let developers write compelling interactive DVD applications.

By doubling the peak processing power on Aries 3 to 3 billion instructions
per second (Mips), this third-generation NUON media processor will have
"ample processing power for software developers to explore a new category of
content and applications," said Pete Birch, executive vice president for
business development at VM Labs, based here.

The company has shrunk the process technology for the third-generation
device from 0.35 micron to 0.18 micron and added firmware enhancements,
making it possible to comfortably design the Aries 3 into entry- to medium-
range DVD player products, Birch said. The device is priced at $12 in sample

The Aries 3 is based on a unique 128-bit, four-way-parallel very long
instruction word processor architecture. In addition to the video and audio
decoding and trick-play functions, the device performs all system-management
and CPU functions.

More specifically, Aries 3 features MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 program stream and
video decode; MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 Layers 1 and 2 audio decode; 5.1-channel
Dolby Digital audio decode; extended DVD trick modes; 32-voice wavetable
synthesizer; MP3 decode; an integrated Content Scrambling System descrambling
module; video scaling, and 3-D videogaming.

A hardware block placed on-chip to assist MPEG video decoding is designed
to free up the bulk of the VLIW device's programmable processing power :
3,024 Mips at peak and 864 Mips typical. Aries 3 is capable of providing
432 million 32-bit multiply-accumulate operations and 1,728 million 16-bit
MACs per second.

VM Labs is no newcomer to the DVD market. Toshiba and Samsung have been
using the company's VLIW media processor and firmware package in their
high-end DVD players since last year. And Aries 3 has already picked up a
number of new DVD player design wins from multiple manufacturers, said
Miller, but he declined to identify the companies.

VM Labs says it has waited to act on its plan to promote NUON as an open
platform until all of its software development tools became stable and its
media processor's cost came down. The company plans to make available, at software tools composed of NUON libraries, sample
code and documentation based around open-source tools such as the GNU

Previously, VM Labs granted Motorola Inc. a nonexclusive license to
manufacture and sell NUON media processors, and Motorola became the first
to incorporate NUON in a set-top box, its Streamaster. With the Aries 3
rollout, VM Labs will change that arrangement. Taiwan Semiconductor
Manufacturing Co. will fabricate the new chips and VM Labs will sell it to

Industry observers see the decision to open up the architecture as
inevitable. "They'd definitely have to open the platform," said Michelle
Abraham, senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group (Scottsdale, Ariz).
"There hasn't been a whole lot of softwares out there yet" that takes
advantage of NUON features.

However, James Grunke, VM Labs' vice president of new-media business
development and operations, said that some popular DVD movie titles
designed for NUON-enabled players are already out, including Bedazzled,
The Matrix and Planet of the Apes.

Aside from movies, existing NUON interactive-content applications include
several 3-D videogames, a Web browser and content viewers such as JPEG
slide show applications.

Just as InterActual has used its proprietary PC-Friendly technology to add
interactivity to DVD movies for viewing on a PC, VM Labs similarly has
been adding interactive enhancements for movie playback on NUON-enabled
consumer DVD players. When NUON-enhanced disks are inserted, these players
enable various special features including a full-motion video thumbnail of
each scene, a zoom function to magnify images, strobe functions to isolate
and scroll through a series of video frames, and execution of interactive
content written to VM Labs' NUON operating system. When a regular DVD
player plays back such a NUON-enhanced disk, it gets all the regular DVD
features but not the NUON ones.

It remains unclear, however, what kind of interactive content will draw
consumers to NUON-enabled DVD. Although Aries 3 comes with
high-performance 2-D and 3-D graphics capabilities with scaled video,
trying to turn a NUON DVD player into a game machine could be deadly,
warned In-Stat's Abraham.

"You don't want to go there," she said. "[Sony's] Playstation 2 and
[Microsoft's] Xbox - both capable of playing back DVD disks - might make
anybody else's efforts useless. Microsoft has so many software developers
lined up for Xbox, and Sony owns the movie studio."

VM Labs is downplaying the potential of videogames as a primary
application and instead is promoting the architecture's versatility.

"There has been no open platform for the living room in the last 10 years
- maybe since Commodore 64," CEO Miller said. Every platform emerging
since then as an interactive consumer platform - ranging from Atari and
3DO boxes to Sega and Nintendo consoles - has been a closed game system
that entailed tightly controlled licensing arrangements between software
developers and the platform owner.

Under VM Labs' new, open-platform scheme, developers can use a suite of
free tools from the company to write applications targeted for the NUON
OS. Programs can either be embedded in flash memory or loaded from DVD,
DVD-R, CD, CD-R or CD-RW media, for execution by the Aries 3 within a DVD

VM Labs says it will provide compatibility-testing programs and logo
certification to ensure that new applications run correctly on all NUON
DVD players. The goal is to make it possible for applications created
using the NUON software development kit to be distributed freely over the

The open architecture also means "freeing system OEMs from traditional IC
life cycles," said Birch. Besides a suite of proven Core Mediaware
libraries for the NUON OS provided by VM Labs, system vendors can use the
software development environment to create their own codecs and custom

The Aries 3 media processor should position VM Labs to effectively compete
against other DVD-player chip powerhouses such as STMicroelectronics, LSI
Logic, Zoran and ESS, said Birch. Additional chips necessary to make a DVD
player based on Aries 3 are two 64-Mbit SDRAMs, 2 Mbytes of flash memory,
a video encoder and two to eight audio D/A converters.

Competitors' solutions are more highly integrated. STMicroelectronics
recently announced two versions of its third-generation back-end solutions
for DVD players. Priced at $13 and $14.50 in quantities of 10,000, the
chips include a 60-MHz 32-bit ST20 processor, 2-kbyte instruction and data
caches, 4 kbytes of SRAM, a hardwired MPEG-2 video decoder, an audio
decoder supporting all the popular DVD audio standards, a video decoder
that handles PAL, NTSC and Secam, and an integrated on-screen display

Still, Birch maintained that "the only cost delta [for NUON] is one
additional SDRAM and a video encoder. We think we have a credible
solution. With Aries 3, we can bring all the high-end features and more at
very little cost difference."


Alive 4