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.

Comments closed
    • Mat3
    • 2 years ago

    I still have my Dreamcast from 9/9/99 and even play it sometimes when people come over. Some games like Dead or Alive 2 and Soul Calibur don’t look bad even today. And Unreal Tournament is still great fun.

    • ronch
    • 2 years ago

    It was pretty fun back in the day when everyone was still trying their hand at 3D graphics. 3dfx and Nvidia were the most prominent players but PowerVR was also kinda interesting. I almost bought a Diamond Viper II based on the S3 Savage4, IIRC.

      • Klimax
      • 2 years ago

      Tseng Labs, 3D Labs Permedia, Bitboys, Trident also Intel wanted piece of action. (i740) So many of them and so fast gone. There were tens of them, yet by 2000 most of them were gone…

        • ronch
        • 2 years ago

        It was kinda like the early days of video game consoles in the late 70’s to early 80’s when everyone was trying to bite off a piece of the pie, except the 3D graphics card market didn’t crash like the early video game console industry did in the first half of the 80’s. If you think about it, what’s happening now with VR is similar. Not sure the demand is that high though. I think it’s more of a novelty. This VR thing has been going on for decades now but I reckon it just couldn’t crack the market in a huge way like video game consoles have. (Remember the horrific Tiger R-Zone??)

        Anyway, step back and you’ll see that this is all part of a long evolution, from early Atari and Intellivision consoles to today’s GTX 1080s and Vegas. And it’s had several milestones that shook up players.

        • fellix
        • 2 years ago

        “There were tens of them…”

        Dozens man, DOZENS!

          • ronch
          • 2 years ago

          Not dozens, billions!!

      • tipoo
      • 2 years ago

      Some new blood in the graphics game would be nice. Though that would probably hurt competitiveness from AMD more than anything.

        • ronch
        • 2 years ago

        It’s gonna be tough as heck to enter the PC graphics arena now. See how even Intel can’t touch Nvidia and AMD. And targeting the low end isn’t easy either, with practically every Intel CPU containing acceptable graphics for the casual user.

          • tipoo
          • 2 years ago

          Intel itself would probably have the best chance. Gen graphics aren’t bad, they’re just not scaled up to where higher end cards are. I wonder what that on a standalone card, high TDP, lots of bandwidth, and more slices could do.

            • DoomGuy64
            • 2 years ago

            One thing good about intel’s graphics is that it keeps amd/nv from making low end cards worse than integrated graphics. Both companies have a long history of making worthless low end cards that can barely play anything, and Intel is keeping these cards off the market.

            Now if AMD can only integrate polaris into zen, we should see some decent low power/cost gaming laptops.

            • tipoo
            • 2 years ago

            Sometimes, manufacturers manage. I see some department store special laptops that pair an integrated graphics chip with a dedicated GPU that performs the same or sometimes even slightly worse occasionally. I guess to get some added sales from people who know just enough to think dGPU is good?

      • DoomGuy64
      • 2 years ago

      T&L, and a lesser extent dx8 was pretty useless, since most games never needed it. The KyroII was probably good enough for games up until games actually started requiring dx8-9.

    • ronch
    • 2 years ago

    Speaking of Project Trident, you guys remember Trident and all the hype they stirred around the XP4? That was in the early 2000s, I think. Then again I don’t think anybody really believed that they could actually pull it off.

    • albundy
    • 2 years ago

    Creative Labs 3D Blaster TNT 2 Ultra vs. the ATI Rage Fury Pro FTW! both had 32MB vram. played MW2 like a champ!

    • Rza79
    • 2 years ago

    Beautiful synopsis: [url<]http://www.vintage3d.org/midas3.php#sthash.yQwOmsm6.dpbs[/url<]

    • notfred
    • 2 years ago

    I had a VideoLogic Apocalypse 3Dx for 3D and a Matrox Millenium as the 2D card in my PII-266 back in 1997.

    • Omniman
    • 2 years ago

    Good Ol’ MechWarrior 2 although Earth Siege 2 I enjoyed even more!

    • chuckula
    • 2 years ago

    Ah MechWarrior 2.
    Can’t wait for CannonLake to launch so I can run it on an Intel IGP.

      • Neutronbeam
      • 2 years ago

      Can’t wait for Mechwarrior 5 next year–if there are no delays.

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