Microsoft emerges as a CPU force with Xbox One and Kinect

The company we've always called a software firm is making a major hardware play with Xbox One and especially the next-generation Kinect.

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Microsoft is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of revolutionary chip design, but that perception is likely to change once the Xbox One and Kinect hit the market. The chip design in the game console and motion detection sensor are unlike anything on the market, at least at that price point.

The company is not normally a guest speaker at the Hot Chips conference; that honor goes to the usual suspects like Intel, AMD, Nvidia, Qualcomm and IBM (who were all there). But Microsoft did make an appearance to discuss its chip designs for the Xbox One and next-generation Kinect motion sensor, and it's definitely worthy of note.

The entire presentation is online (here in PDF format). The Xbox One SoC is 353 mm squared with more than five billion transistors, making it bigger than the largest Xeon server chip. That's because it has eight CPU cores, a GPU and more than 50 other processors and MCUs (micro-controller units) as well. There may be a SoC at the heart of the Xbox One but it will never make it into a smartphone.

The chip will be manufactured by TSMC, not AMD's regular foundry partner Globalfoundaries. John Sell, the Xbox One's chip architect, said that the chance of defects was high because the chip was so complex, but Microsoft had designed in redundancies into the chip so that if one section was inoperable, it doesn’t kill the whole chip and we don't have a return of the dreaded Red Ring of Death.

Still, it won't be easy for TSMC to crank out millions of these chips, and it has a similarly complex chip to make for Sony's PlayStation 4. The one good thing TSMC has going for it is it routinely makes chips this size for Nvidia, so it's worked out some of the bugs. But boy is that company going to be busy. TSMC makes the GPUs for Nvidia and AMD and is picking up Apple's business, plus these two consoles. That is going to be one seriously overloaded company. I'm not predicting a shortage of Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles this fall, but it wouldn't surprise me, either.

Among the 50 MCUs are 15 special processors that can handle things like graphics and physics processing. The result is a chip and system that are freakishly powerful and would make any PC gamer drool. The DRAM can access the CPU cache at a rate of 30GB/sec. and non-CPU cache at 68GB/sec. The embedded RAM can transfer data at a rate of 204GBs/sec to different parts of the chip.

Microsoft used PC standards – an x86 CPU, a DirectX 11 GPU and DDR3 memory – but it threw out the traditional PC architecture to create a beast. Many analysts have told me over the years that consoles tend to be over-engineered, so they have a long lifespan. Given Microsoft got eight years and counting out of the Xbox 360, the Xbox One should be good for at least a decade.

Then came the Kinect group, and that was even more impressive. The new Kinect is an amazing piece of motion capture at its price point. It can detect objects as small as 2.5 centimeters, with 20 millisecond latency and a 1080p camera with a 70-degree viewing angle and can detect movement from as close as 0.8 meters to as far as 4.2 meters, even in low light.

The Kinect on the Xbox One actually “illuminates” the room with its own modulated light and measures the time it takes to come back. This is technology Microsoft acquired from Canesta in 2010. An Xbox One can recognize up to six different players, way better than the original device, which maxed out at two people.

In addition, Kinect has a 4-channel beam forming microphone with multiple antennas to direct the audio signal where you want it to go. So games and other apps can direct audio in the direction of a specific person.

"I'm almost disappointed we're not seeing it more broadly available in the market. They are probably ahead of others trying to do the same thing. First it identifies a person, then identifies their hand. Then their fingers and tracks all of them. Now do it in a broad range of lighting for multiple people. To do it for more than two is a monumental task," said Jim McGregor, president of Tirias Research, who saw the demo.

But Microsoft is not in the habit of licensing IP. It does sell the Kinect for PC and there was talk of all kinds of applications being written for it, including a motion controlled camera for surgeons, but Kinect for PC has yet to take off, notes Paul Thurrott of the Windows SuperSite. He attributes this to the loss of drive and vision at Microsoft and its inability to lead the market any more.

Microsoft's hardware legacy

So when did Microsoft get so good at chips? It's been a slow process, done mostly out of sight, but the moves have been there.

In 2007, the company released a Webcam called RoundTable, which sat in the middle of the table and had surround cameras and microphones to cover the room. If someone spoke, the camera detected where they were and activated the camera facing that person. Unfortunately it didn't sell well and was given over to Polycom in 2009.

Then in 2009, Microsoft hired Marc Tremblay away from Sun. Tremblay was a Sun fellow and chief technology officer for its Microelectronics unit. Tremblay pretty much led all of Sun's chip development efforts for the past decade and had more than 100 patents to his name, more than any other chip designer I know.

He joined Microsoft Research as a "distinguished engineer," working out of the Mountain View research facility and works in the Strategic Software/Silicon Architectures group. Microsoft has not confirmed it, and he wasn't at Hot Chips, but it wouldn't surprise me if a chip designer of his talent was behind the silicon in Xbox One and Kinect.

Now you have the wild card of Nokia employees coming into Microsoft (assuming the deal goes through). Very quietly, except for that Nokia move, Microsoft may end up being a semiconductor manufacturer on par with Intel, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.

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