New ARM GPU could bring VR to low-cost smartphones by 2018

ARM's Mali G-51 GPU is smaller, faster, and designed for budget handsets

ARM demonstrating Ice Cave app on Gear VR

ARM demonstrates the Ice Cave app on a Samsung Gear VR headset.

Credit: ARM

Today, a robust, VR-capable smartphone could cost you more than US $500. But a new GPU from ARM could make VR a default feature in low-cost handsets by 2018.

ARM's Mali-G51 GPU is targeted toward budget smartphones and has the horsepower to handle VR applications. It can bring VR to mainstream handsets priced around $200.

Today, 4K and virtual reality are mostly limited to high-end handsets like Samsung's Galaxy S7, which allows users to hook up to a VR headset to roam virtual worlds.

Google's DayDream VR system will initially come to some high-end smartphones, but ARM's Mali G-51 could bring that technology to low-end handsets. DayDream requires handsets to include specific features to be VR compatible.

The ARM GPU could also be used directly in stand-alone VR headsets, much like Allwinner's H8VR chipset. The low-cost VR headset is booming, with many models being made by small Chinese companies.

The Mali G-51 is designed to operate within the limited size and power constraints of a smartphone. It won't match the experience of an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, which need to be paired with some of the most powerful PC GPUs from Nvidia or AMD.

Smartphone makers are bragging about graphics capabilities as hype grows around 4K video and virtual reality. The Mali G-51 won't be expensive to implement considering its small size, ARM said.

The GPU is based on ARM's Bitfrost architecture, which balances power consumption with the demanding horsepower required by graphics.

It is faster and more power efficient than previous ARM GPUs, so smartphones will draw less power when running graphics intensive applications. 

The GPU also has specific features for VR applications like gaming and collaboration. It has a pipeline that enables faster processing of VR content.

ARM's GPUs are used in handsets from top smartphone makers like Samsung and LG. Qualcomm, Nvidia, Apple, Imagination Technologies, and AMD have also developed mobile GPU technology.

ARM designs processors like Mali and its Cortex CPU, which chip makers can then license. The Mali G-51 can be paired with V-series video processors from ARM in smartphones.

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