Sigma Introduces HDTV Chip Set

Las Vegas— Sigma Designs Inc. has developed a new high-definition television decoder chip set that supports MPEG-4 video and could be built into future TV sets.

The new EM8605 chipset, introduced at the International Consumer Electronics Show here last week, will support digital TV, DVD, video-on-demand and digital video recording applications, Sigma said.

The chip set has a media processor that operates with an embedded central processing unit. It features HD decoding, multistream video decoding of the Moving Picture Experts Group's MPEG-4, MPEG-2 and MPEG-1 formats, multistream audio decoding, two-dimensional graphics acceleration, transport-stream handling with DVD decryption and advanced display processing.

The pitch to cable operators is that MSOs could convert MPEG-2 signals to MPEG-4 at the headend, freeing bandwidth for more HDTV channels.

What also makes the Sigma chip set interesting is that it will be used by the eBox consortium, which includes Sigma, National Semiconductor Inc., Pioneer Electronics Corp. and Sharp Electronics Corp. Last May, those groups announced they would develop a new TV and set-top media-gateway appliance that would support VOD, DVR and HDTV based on MPEG-4.

The new chip set, although MPEG-4 based, will be able to handle current MPEG-2 feeds. Comcast Corp. plans to trial the eBox device as soon as it's ready later this spring, Sigma said.

"MPEG-4 is a technology that is being deployed today to generate new revenues from bandwidth-limited applications that cannot be supported by MPEG-2," said Ken Lowe, vice president of strategic marketing at Sigma Designs.

Sigma has two target audiences, the first of which is the eBox joint venture, said Lowe.

"That's a done deal," he said. "Comcast is committed to going to trial once the box is ready in the spring."

The other audience consists of integrated digital-TV manufacturers.

Lowe said one idea Comcast is considering would take MPEG-2 feeds that come into a headend, transcode them to MPEG-4 and then send them through the plant to an eBox device in the home. That would allow Comcast to offer more HDTV channels in its current plant and reduce the chance the MSO would have to kick off analog or digital channels to make way for bandwidth-intensive HD channels, Lowe said.

Even if MSOs aren't ready to make the MPEG-4 leap today, installing boxes with MPEG-4 capability would create an installed base for when the specification is ready for primetime, Lowe said.

The chip set will cost $37 a piece in quantities of 10,000 or more, said Lowe.