PowerVR celebrates 25 years with a look to the past

Over at the Imagination Technologies blog, there's a fresh article written by none other than Simon Fenney. It's the 25th anniversary of the creation of PowerVR, and Simon was one of the original creators of the technology. His blog post recounts some of his fond memories of the early days of the unique graphics tech.

PowerVR "Project Trident" development board

These days, when you hear the name "PowerVR," you probably think about mobile graphics chips. Perhaps most notably, PowerVR has been supplying graphics tech for Apple's mobile SoCs since the original iPhone (even if that relationship seems to have come to a close). Even before that, PowerVR's mobile parts were popping up in chips from other companies like NEC, Texas Instruments, and Samsung.

A lot of us older PC enthusiasts still think of PowerVR's PC accelerator boards when we hear the name, though. It's been a long time since we saw PowerVR's name on an expansion board: the last such part produced was the Hercules 3D Prophet 4800, based on the Kyro II SE chip. That board was released in very limited quantities in 2002, and shortly afterward PowerVR pulled out of the PC market to focus on mobile tech.

The basic design of PowerVR's PC accelerators is an efficient "tile-based deferred renderer" that by its very nature performs automatic hidden surface removal. That makes the technology well-suited for mobile applications. It's also different enough from the forward renderers of its competitors that it had a difficult time maintaining compatibility with games programmed for the more popular Nvidia and ATI accelerators of the day.

A video comparison of Mechwarrior 2 on various early 3D chips, including PowerVR.

Simon's post goes all the way back to the PowerVR technology's origins as a project at the company then called VideoLogic. That was a time well before the PowerVR's Kyro tech saw the light of day, and pre-dating GeForces, Radeons, and even the 3dfx Voodoo. Simon talks at length about his memories of carting around a heavily modified FPGA demo board to show to potential corporate purchasers, and fondly recalls the company's Midas- and PCX-series cards that are all but forgotten by history. My best friend had a Matrox M3D accelerator based on PowerVR's PCX2 chip, and we enjoyed comparing its then-beautiful versions of Wipeout XL and Mechwarrior 2 to similar games on my contemporary ATI 3D Rage Pro.

In those heady early days of PC 3D accelerator cards, you often used them in tandem with your regular video card. PowerVR was one of many competitors back then, and before the development of widely-supported and game-focused 3D APIs like Direct3D, games had to be coded directly for your hardware. Mechwarrior 2 was one of the most popular showcase games for 3D graphics hardware at the time, and Simon recalls flying out to Los Angeles to help port Mechwarrior 2 to the PowerVR PCX architecture.

We won't re-tell Simon's whole story here, so hit up the ImgTec blog if you want to read his reminiscing. At a time when PowerVR's future is a bit uncertain, it's interesting to read about the origins of the technology that powered Sega's Dreamcast and several million iPhones.

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