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January 28, 1998

HP DUMPS HIGH-END GRAPHICS: 3D PLANS IN TATTERS?

By CBR Staff Writer

So much for Hewlett-Packard Co’s plan to topple Silicon Graphics Inc from its leadership position in the high-end graphics market (CI No 3,199). The company has embarrassingly deep-sixed the high-end Visualize PxFL graphics subsystem it planned to launch this month to steal SGI customers, and closed its Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina R&D unit, having spent at least $6m in license fees on it, and a ton more dollars developing it. Moreover what with Microsoft Corp taking up with SGI on a new OpenGL-based graphics architecture called Fahrenheit (CI No 3,314) when it was supposed to be majoring on a new PxFl-based (PixelFlow) DirectModel graphics system developed with HP (CI No 3,161), we can’t help wondering if HP’s entire graphics program is beginning to come unstuck. Microsoft’s Talisman rendering technology, which will be superseded by Fahrenheit, is, like HP’s Visualize 3D hardware, also derived from the University of North Carolina’s PixelFlow technology. Trying to side-step the issue, HP says it existing C240 HP-UX Unix workstations provide just as much graphics performance as the Visualize PxFl engine it demo’d at the recent Siggraph show.

Disastrous

The innovative 3D graphics system was based around having each pixel on a screen managed by a dedicated processor, with the chip-level PixelFlow having up to 8,192 or 16,384 processing elements now and potentially far more, cut directly onto a single chip. The research was a culmination of work at the University of North Carolina and UK Bristol-based Division Group Plc, full with refugees from parallel processing R&D dating back to the ill- fated UK government funded Inmos Transputer now languishing in SGS Thomson’s technology vaults. Tuesday’s results from UK-based virtual reality pioneer Division Group Plc (CI No 3,334), unveiled details of a mid-year management buy-out (MBO) of the PixelFlow technology where it had previously been touted as a sell off to HP, put down to its need to get out of a disastrous hardware market and a newfound desire to focus on CAD/CAM visualization. It now turns out that this included a split between the four company founders with Ray McConnell and Phil Atkin leaving the board in the MBO, creating the new PixelFusion and taking a license to the ground breaking 3D graphics hardware said to be 100 times faster than currently available technologies. The spin out to HP was effected in the May last year (CI No 2,937) but this year two other licensees have emerged, with Division quietly offloading its PixelFlow and PixelPlanes parallel processing chip technology to this new MBO PixelFusion and to US concern Ivex Inc. Calls to HP yesterday confirmed the closure of the lab but not the extent of what PxFl work it actually owns. HP claims it will use the technology in other more mainstream graphics products. PixelFusion says its own efforts are funded privately at the moment, but it will be looking for US high-tech venture capital funding during the course of 1998. CEO Ian Lazenby said: We will need several million dollars during 1998 in order to bring this technology to market in the form of finished chips targeted at the high end PC market. Division Group Plc began the year as a 40% shareholder in PixelFusion Ltd and its reported losses associated with the investment suggests total cash burn of PixelFusion approaching $1m a year.

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