Google reveals its first ever mobile chip, powering Pixel 2’s camera

18 Oct 2017

Google logo on Zurich office building. Image: Denis Linine/Shutterstock

Google quietly debuts its first custom-designed co-processor for consumer products.

The major hardware drop earlier this month from Google heralded a new era of innovation for the company, and now one detail has come to the fore: the Pixel Visual Core (PVC).

This is Google’s first custom system-on-a-chip (SOC) for consumer items, and it functions to make the most of the HDR+ technology, which makes it possible to get high-quality images of scenes with varying brightness levels.

Google pioneering HDR+ technology

Capturing everything from a dusky, low-light sky to a sunny beach trip, the HDR+ algorithm has been evolving over the years in terms of intelligent processing.

Google has been working in the background to create hardware capabilities for its products and, eventually, third-party apps.

The PVC chip is built into every Pixel 2 phone, and is currently dormant in both the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL, so it will be a nice bonus for buyers when its capabilities finally go live.

The Pixel camera is already a whizz in terms of HDR shot processing, so fans will enjoy the prospect of a further speed increase.

The centrepiece of the PVC chip is the Google-designed image processing unit (IPU), “a fully programmable, domain-specific processor designed from scratch to deliver maximum performance at low power”.

PVC chip rapidly speeds things up

Using the new chip, HDR+ can run five times faster than running on the application processor, and at less than a tenth of the energy.

Google said it will enable PVC as an option in the developer preview of Android Oreo 8.1, and will later enable it for all third-party apps using the Android Camera API, giving them access to Google’s powerful HDR+ photography capabilities.

From left: Photo taken on Pixel 2 with third-party app, compared to photo taken with PVC. Image: Google

The company said: “A key ingredient to the IPU’s efficiency is the tight coupling of hardware and software – our software controls many more details of the hardware than in a typical processor.”

Google will also continue to port new machine learning and imagining applications to use the PVC chip, meaning continued improvements and updates for Pixel users.

Google logo on Zurich office building. Image: Denis Linine/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects