Startup Debuts Digital Video Processor

Startup Zenverge has come out of stealth mode with a processor architecture optimized to quickly translate video from one format to another, aiming at a wide range of client and network media systems. The company claims the first member of its product line will be able to transcode high definition video four times faster than existing chips.

Zenverge anticipates a consumer need to move broadcast, packaged, Internet and mobile video between video recorders, Blu-Ray players, PCs and handsets. Thus its so-called Zen Entertainment Nexus chips aim to speed translation of video between MPEG-2 and H.264 as well as a variety of resolutions, frame rates and digital rights management formats.

"We want to go after this new transcoding application that can make HD content easy to store and send between all devices whether they be TVs, cellphones or Blu-Ray players," said Tony Masterson, chief operating and chief technology officer of Zenverge.

The startup has scoped out a handful of value propositions that would make its chip more than pay for itself when added to an existing design. For example, a digital video recorder could use the chip to store broadcast video in H.264 format and thus pack more content on its hard disk.

"If they can save $100 on a hard disk —one of their most expensive components- and our chip is significantly cheaper, that's a big deal to them," said Masterson.

Conversely, the chip could be used to translate high def movies in H.264 on a camcorder to MPEG-2 so it can be stored on a rewritable DVD. "Even with a high-end Nvidia graphics chip, this is very cumbersome to do, and the majority of PCs use Intel baseline graphics that can't do transcoding, period," he said.

Carriers could specify the chip in their set-top boxes for two applications. It could help them transition from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 services, making room for more channels. It could also be used to enhance content on a set-top that acts as multi-room digital video recorder.

The Zenverge chips can also handle video encoding, making them suitable for systems at the carrier network. Long term they might also replace existing video decoders in set-tops, but the startup does not want to compete head-on with established players in that market which include Broadcom, Sigma Designs and STMicroelectronics. PC graphics giants such as Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices are already leveraging their multicore architectures to handle video transcoding PCs. How quickly the set-top and TV chip makers roll out similar capabilities remains to be seen.

Masterson claims existing chips can, at best, transcode high definition content in real time, creating significant wait time for consumers. He and co-founder Amir Mobini previously started iCompression, an MPEG-2 chip startup sold to Globespan for about $400 million.

Kathleen Maher, a senior analyst with market watcher Jon Peddie Associates (Tiburon, Calif.), said the startup has an impressive background. It has identified a real consumer need, albeit one still out in the future for most consumers. The trick will be convincing OEMs that need is real and getting them to design in the startup's chip, she said.

The startup also must convince investors to chip in on another financing round, probably in mid-2009 before the current recession which already has killed some CPU startups is expected to end. It has taken on two rounds of funding to date. The last round in 2007 included the venture arm of set-top maker Motorola.

"VCs still have a lot of money," said Masterson. "They are being more cautious but they are still doing financing if you are in a hot area with strong customer interest."

Zenverge is not providing many details on its products or architecture yet. However, it has written a white paper that sketches out 12 optimizations for video processing in its first chip, the ZN200, sampling now. The 25mm2 device can process up to four high def streams at once in real time, dissipating something south of 10W and using as little as 128 Mbytes RAM.

The company plans two cost-reduced versions of the chip expected in late 2009.

By Rick Merritt, EE Times