Movidius gets $16M for a chip that gives your device always-on vision

What if your cell phone camera was always on? If something like constantly capturing images didn’t suck both battery and processing power on a mobile device? Augmented reality might become predictively responsive rather than requiring you to actively open an app. Wearable electronics might have a better sense of your environment and react with appropriate apps for the situation. Visual search could be widespread.
That’s the vision behind Movidius, an 8-year-old chip startup that has raised $16 million. It wants to build a semiconductor that can give a phone or tablet the gift of sight without wearing out the battery. This fourth round, raised from Atlantic Bridge, DFJ Esprit and Robert Bosch Venture Capital, Capital E, AIB Seed Capital Fund and others, brings the company’s total capital raised to $50 million.
That’s a lot of money, but the San Mateo, Calif.-based company is building a chip. And not just a new chip, but an entirely new type of architecture designed to offer multiple teraflops of compute power (a teraflop is a measurement of compute capacity popularized for high performance computing) using only a couple hundred milliwatts of power. This chip would be an addition to the existing hardware on a mobile phone or tablet, communicating with the application processor. It joins other chip startups such as Adapteva pitching new architectures for today’s mobile environments.
In an interview with Remi El-Ouazzane, the new CEO of Movidius, he didn’t get any more specific about the performance or the power consumption despite my asking. He did, however, share that the architecture for the chip emphasizes parallelism in the hardware and consists of a large programmable bit of software. All elements, he said, were “one contiguous block of memory.”
He added that right now the second-generation chip (the first one was a proof of concept) hadn’t yet been produced for customers to try, but that he expects that to happen later this year, with the chip appearing in devices in 2014. The chip would hopefully cost less than $5, which would certainly give it a chance in the high-end tablet and smartphone market.
This last push to get the chip in the hands of device makers and to support them via software is why the firm raised this $16 million round, according to El-Ouazzane. It might also explain the recent executive change. El-Ouazzane, formerly the VP and worldwide general manager of Texas Instruments’ (s txn) OMAP application-processor business, replaces Movidius co-founder Sean Mitchell as CEO.
However, getting a new architecture into play, even one that is mightily efficient and can even add new features, is a hard sell in the highly demanding and competitive consumer-electronics market (it can even be tough to get VCs on board, as Adapteva discovered). While computer vision is cool, it’s also a technology that’s going to require software to take advantage of the chip’s capabilities, and writing that software with the hope of the chip making it into new devices is always a chicken-and-egg kind of game.