SANTA CLARA, Calif. ( ChipWire) -- Three-year-old NuCore Technology Inc. is launching a chip set for high-speed digital cameras partitioned as an analog front end and a digital image processor. The set bridges a longstanding divide by accommodating the throughput and resolution requirements of both digital still cameras and digital video camcorders.
Delivering 50-megapixel-per-second continuous image processing at 12-bit resolution,the image-processing engine is the industry's fastest to date, claimed Joseph Raffa, chief executive officer of NuCore in Santa Clara. "No other combination of chips comes close to this."
The digital imaging processor that previously claimed the highest throughput, at
up to 24 Mpixels/s, was unveiled only a month ago by PhotoAccess.com Corp. of Mountain View, Calif.
NuCore claims its chip set enables a camera that can acquire, enhance, compress, display and store "4-Mpixel digital still images continuously at a rate of 12 per second and 1.4 million-pixel video at 30 frames per second, with 12-bit accuracy."
OEMs designing next-generation digital cameras want "the ability to offer an increasingly popular 'burst mode' feature -- acquiring a rapid succession of multiple images -- while using a larger sensor to take higher-resolution pictures," Raffa said. "Our chip set delivers both."
Current generation digital cameras can capture still images with resolution of several million pixels, but cannot capture video images continuously. At the same time, digital video camcorders can acquire digital video images at 30 frames/s but aren't capable of the resolution required for still photos. "If NuCore delivers its promise, it brings down, for the first time, the artificial separation between digital still cameras and digital camcorders," said Paul Worthington, imaging analyst at Future Image Inc. in San Mateo, Calif.
NuCore maintains close ties with Japan, which produces 85% of the cameras sold worldwide. The company was founded by Japanese nationals, including Seiichiro Watanabe, who brought extensive experience in medical imaging technology gained at Hitachi Ltd. Watanabe is the startup's president
and chief technology officer; Gordon Campbell is chairman. The company
employs 21 engineers here and 10 people in Japan.
Whereas Texas Instruments Inc. recently announced a fully programmable DSP-based digital still camera chip, NuCore has taken a hardwired ASIC approach.
NuCore implemented all image-processing algorithms in the custom-designed
hardware to speed throughput. The algorithms include color correction, gamma
conversion, edge detection and enhancement.
Asked whether first-tier camera OEMs might prefer flexibility and programmability
to leverage their own image-processing algorithms, Raffa stressed that NuCore's
engineers are no strangers to high-resolution technologies. "We have been deeply
engaged with many leading camera designers in Japan, and those discussions
led us to determine 25 different categories of algorithms," he said. Further, he
said, "We do provide OEMs the ability to tune image processing, since our chip
is register-programmable and can be controlled by an external microcontroller."
NuCore's two chips, the NDX-1250 analog front end and the SiP-1250 digital
image-processor, can be designed in separately, which allows an OEM to keep
its proprietary image processing ASIC if desired. But the unique combination of
features in the two-chip solution gives OEMs the optimal result, according to the
The startup's engineers have implemented a unique partitioning of
image-processing tasks between the chips. Whereas conventional chip sets
perform color balancing after the digital conversion, NuCore's front end takes over
the task in the analog domain. A very fast color-by-color gain control feature
embedded in the analog chip enables a far wider color dynamic range, delivering
color quality equivalent to three-CCD cameras in a camera with a single CCD
sensor. "We believe the dynamic range property problem has been limiting the
appeal for digital cameras to date," Raffa said.
The NDX-1250 front end is also claimed to be the only chip that can perform
decimation in analog when the camera is used in viewfinder mode. Raffa said
much of the battery-life problem in today's digital cameras stems from displaying
images on a camera LCD when setting up shots. Because the LCD resolution of
such an LCD is usually limited to 320 x 240, or 153,600 pixels, most cameras
waste battery life by capturing and processing the entire high-resolution
million-pixel image first and then throwing away most of the pixels in the digital
Instead, the NDX-1250 lets a camera decimate the unnecessary pixels up front,
in analog, and then move only 153,000 pixels through the complete camera
system. NuCore estimates that the technique can provide up to a 45% power savings compared with full-performance operation.
The NDX-1250, priced at $15 each in quantities of 100,000, can be used with
either a CCD sensor or a CMOS sensor. "As long as a CMOS sensor has an
analog output, OEMs can use our front end chip," Raffa said. The mixed-signal
chip, fabricated using a 0.35-micron process, is sampling now.
The SiP-1250, priced at $40 each in quantities of 100,000, is an optimized
pipelined processor designed for image processing. The chip implements a range
of image processing algorithms in hardware as well as JPEG compression for still
images and motion JPEG for moving pictures. Data can be sent out to an
external code for DV or MPEG compression. The digital chip is fabricated in an
0.18-micron process and is slated to ship in October.
The chip set has scored a design win with JVC, which plans to use the NDX-1250
and SiP-1250 in its new-generation hard disk cameras. JVC previewed the
camera at the recent National Association of Broadcasters show.