Summary: While Bitboys never officially launched a product for the desktop market, chip designs were in the works ranging all the way up to DirectX 9. In today's article, Dave Barron, a former Bitboys employee, discusses the details of each of these cores and why they never got off the ground. Find out what Bitboys is up to now in our latest article!
Bitboys has long been a mystery within the graphics industry. Many consider them a joke, few are loyal followers. Yet behind all of this a real company exists. They are, without question, a company of truly dedicated people who strongly desire to do something good. How do I know this? I used to work for them. For nearly a year I was employed at their Dallas office, until shortly before it was ultimately closed down. This experience has provided me with a sufficient amount of insight in the company and its history to relate the real story behind Bitboys.
Bitboys history goes back to the days of a group known as Future Crew. Future Crew made a name for themselves in the 3D technology demo development, notorious for pushing computer graphics capabilities to the max. From this group, a number of small companies developed, and amongst them Bitboys was founded in 1991. Much would happen over their lifetime, bringing them from the original two founders to what they are today.
The Early Days
Bitboys’ first few years of existence were comprised of traditional software development for local companies, sustaining themselves for growth. This proved extremely boring for them, to say the least, but doing so provided the necessary funds for company growth. During this time, Bitboys continued work in the background on their true love, 3D graphics.
Initial silicon spins of TR25201 were riddled with bugs, causing a highly distorted image. Timing issues resulted in multiple silicon respins, in an attempt to resolve these problems. When the final version of the chip was developed, TR25204, the issues were solved and a few additional features were included, including a built-in VGA core. Yet it was at this point the real problems developed.
Looking Towards the Future
Late in the development of Pyramid3D, Bitboys had begun working with Tritech on a next generation architecture that would make heavy use of embedded memory. With Tritech’s closure, their partner was gone, yet the concept certainly was not. Thus, on their own, they began the development of their Xtreme Bandwidth Architecture (XBA), and their next-generation chip, Glaze3D.
Work begins on Glaze3D
With few people employed at Bitboys and a relative level of inexperience in chip development, Glaze3D development took considerable time. Being Bitboys’ first complete independent design, it was far from an easy task. While certain aspects were straightforward, including the pixel pipeline and triangle setup, other details proved to be rather complicated. There were the more intricate parts of design, not specifically related to functionality, but general chip operation, and also the more complicated units such as the memory manager.
New Tools Bring Changes
Glaze3D synthesis work was done in Infineon’s design center in France. This effort sparked an idea in their minds for a tool set designed to automate much of the product design flow. These tools would put in place all of the necessary features for allowing a C programmer to complete unit designs. The programmer would code the unit in C, then using the built-in tools and automated functionality, take the unit to VHDL and if desired, synthesis. Clock accurate simulation capabilities would be included as well, allowing for testing and debugging. Upon returning to Finland, design work began on this tool set. This would later prove to be one of Bitboys wisest decisions.
From Glaze3D to Axe
The new tool set was making steady progress after several months; a workable version was ready just before the end of 2000. With these tools expected to reduce design time by many months and Glaze3D requiring several improvements to make it a marketable part, the chip went partially back to the drawing board. While much of the core architecture remained the same, Axe was created with a tweaking and recoding on the new design system. The total amount of EDRAM was increased from 9 to 12MB, the internal memory bus was expanded to 1024-bits, and Matrix Anti-Aliasing and a programmable vertex shader were added as well. While making a fresh start, the Glaze architecture had provided the necessary insight to allow Axe development to move forward quickly.
Bitboys set an extremely aggressive schedule for Axe, anticipating tape out in less than 6 months. The original schedule called for the release of Axe during the 2001 Christmas seasons under the name Avalanche3D. With the new tools in place, this appeared to be a realistic timeframe. This, however, would be the first time that Bitboys would take a chip design to final silicon, so there were still a few important things to learn.
Problems at Infineon
While Axe development was taking place, Infineon, Bitboys primary partner and fab, was continuing to suffer financially. With the low level of DRAM prices, it was impossible for them to stay profitable. After multiple quarters of repeated losses, the decision was made to close the embedded DRAM business unit.
With Axe taping out near the end of 2001, work on Hammer quickly became the priority. Hammer was to be a high-end DX9 part, fully supporting the DirectX9 specification. Considerable work was done on Hammer, including securing a new fab partner, laying out the complete product specification and even a substantial amount of coding. Proving to be extremely promising, Hammer offered a variety of innovations in anti-aliasing, occlusion culling and memory management. But still, more troubles were to come.
Near the time of ending US operations, Bitboys had begun work with a major electronics corporation on a mobile solution for PDAs and cell phones. A primary design requirement would be low power consumption, as well as minimal die size. For a company that had always been allowed considerable freedom in design work, the restrictions were to be quite heavy. But a challenge can certainly make work interesting, and this is exactly what happened here.
Design work was soon begun though no contracts had yet been signed. With a relatively small design effort, a rough design was quickly completed. The tool set allowed them to export the C code directly to a FPGA, by means of conversion. With a few available demos, the architecture was demonstrated on the FPGA, demonstrating a surprising level of performance though not using actual silicon.
With the technology available and demonstrated, this corporation jumped on board with a contract. Some apparently innovative technology exists within the part, but it is so secret that I’ve not been made aware of it. With design continuing today, the part is expected to be shown in silicon and completed within the first half of 2003, with successive parts to follow.
And that is Bitboys. Love them or hate them, they are for real and they are doing something. While not focusing on high-end 3D graphics any longer, they still hope to make a valuable contribution to the industry by entering the mobile market. Whether they will ever return to the high-end market remains to be seen, but it is certainly something that the company founders one day hope to do.
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