By Junko Yoshida,

From "Electronic Engineering Times", July 5, 1993

Copyright 1993 by CMP Publications Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted under the "Reasonable Use" interpretation of the 1976 Copyright Act.

Sunnyvale, Calif -- Atari Corp. will score a new level of videogame performance this fall with the introduction of Jaguar, a 64-bit RISC-based system offering realtime 3-D shaded surfaces with texture mapping.

The $200 system, able to tap into the growing network of cable and telephone video services, will take videogames into a graphics realm once the province of midrange 3-D workstations. In yet a further departure, the system will be built by IBM Corp.

Jaguar, billed as an interactive multimedia system, is based on an Atari-designed proprietary 64-bit RISC processor and its proprietary digital signal processors. The cartridge-based system features 24-bit true color graphics, shaded 3-D polygons and realtime texture mapping. Atari claims that Jaguar offers four times the processing power of the current 16-bit videogames form Sega and Nintendo, and believes it is even more powerful than the coming 32-bit ARM CPU-based machine from 3DO Co. "If a spaceship goes around a moon, or a person walking on a street turns on the next corner, every object, every detail in such scenes is reproduced in shaded 3-D images with texture. It's truly amazing stuff," said Atari  president Sam Tramiel.

Dense ASICs

The system's graphics performance is compared by the company to that of the 3-D engines in midrange Unix workstations. And like those engines, Jaguar is based on advanced, very dense digital ASICs.

Jaguar's core consists of two chip sets, one holding the 64-bit RISC processor and the other containing DSP hardware. "But the partitioning between the two chip sets is ambiguous," said Richard Miller, vice president of research and development at Atari, as the two share some functions. The two sets apparently pack a whole range of components, including controllers, video processors and encoders, leaving outside the core only "a very small amount of TTLs and DRAMs," said Miller. They were designed at an Atari facility in England, said Tramiel.

The 64-bit RISC processor is capable of processing video data at a high rate, handling various video effects as well as full-motion video compression on its own, Miller claimed.

Lots of bandwidth

Atari would not disclose any more about the core ASICs, such as gate counts or data bandwidth, but Miller pointed out that Atari engineers had to concentrate most of their design efforts on bus bandwidth. "Graphics eats a lot of bus bandwidth. What's available today for other 64-bit processors such as PowerPC is only just enough for what we want to do," he said. "What we designed is right up on the level of expensive 64-bit processors."

To meet its cost goals, Atari had to push ASIC technology to the limit. The chip sets will be manufactured by "one of the top four silicon vendors in the world" using the "smallest geometry" available, said Miller. It is believed that with Jaguar Atari has become one of the early customers for a major Japanese 0.5-micron ASIC process, but the company would not confirm this.

Clearly, manufacturing volume is essential to the Jaguar plan. The company intends to introduce an add-on PC card featuring the company's proprietary 64-bit RISC processor, said Tramiel. "It could also help minimize the cost of our chip sets," he said.

Atari is also considering licensing the chip set to other silicon vendors, but has not determined any details yet, said Tramiel.

The future holds more integration. But before working on the ultimate, a system on a chip, the next step for Atari's engineering team is to shrink what is currently a set of rather large custom chips further, reducing the whole system to "one processor, one DRAM, one ROM and one custom chip," said Miller. The company is looking at both synchronous DRAMs and Rambus DRAMs for future use, "but we are waiting to see some of the standards issues get settled first," he noted.

Miller does have a technological wish list. "First," he said, "we'd love to have 0.3-micron process technology as soon as possible for custom ICs. Second, we'd like to see some form of synchronous DRAMs appear as a standard commodity DRAM, and, naturally, a very high bus bandwidth to produce higher video performance. The existing improvements for faster bus interfaces so far have been very disappointing for us. Lastly, I'd love to  play the Atari Jaguar system on a 10 x 10-foot display. I'm waiting for a very low cost, low power, large-screen-size display, using probably not anactive matrix but FED-type technology."

In the long run, Jaguar is designed not just as a cartridge-based game machine. It will use a 32-bit expansion port to connect to cable and telephone networks, and a digital signal processing port for modem usage and connection to digital audio peripherals.

This I/O structure reflects Time Warner's 25 percent stake in Atari. "In the course of our product development, we've had frequent discussions with Time Warner. It has set the direction for our machine to have cable and telephone connections," said Leonard Tramiel, vice president of operating systems.

The company designed and built a 16-bit prototype home-entertainment machine two years ago, said Sam Tramiel, but scrapped the plan in favor of a grand attempt to leapfrog the 16-bit systems that were then coming onto the market. But when Atari engineers stated to look for enabling technology, "there were no RISC processors and no DSPs that fulfilled our requirements, especially at our cost," said Miller. Atari's design team even had to develop its own HDL simulation tools, he said.

"People tend to forget that, unlike business users, consumers do have much higher expectations in video quality, speed and cost," Miller said. "In order to match that demand, we had to really push the technological envelope, driving the chip counts down, designing the system to be highly manufacturable and depending on the smallest geometry process technology."


Atari will also push the envelope in another way, turning its back on traditional East Asian manufacturing sites and calling on IBM to build Jaguar. IBM, working with a 30-month contract worth $500 million, will be responsible for component sourcing, quality testing, console assembly, packaging and distribution, and will build the system at its Charlotte, N.C. facility. The motherboard will come from an IBM-approved manufacturer, said Herbert Watkins, director of application solutions manufacturing at IBM Charlotte.

For IBM, producing the Atari Jaguar system makes it for the first time a major OEM for highly cost-competitive, mass consumer-electronics products, Watkins noted.

"To manufacture one of the most sophisticated game machines in the world, we needed someone who understood a high-volume, fast digital machine," said Miller. "IBM was a natural choice."

According to IBM, the prototypes of the Atari Jaguar system will come out in July, ramp-up models in August and mass-production versions in September. The system will be available first on a limited basis in the fall in the New York and San Francisco areas. A national rollout is scheduled for next year.

Additional reporting by Roger Woolnough.

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