Movidius wants to change the way your smartphone sees the world

Despite the promise of Google's Movidius-equipped Project Tango, there are still no depth-sensing, SLR-stomping smartphones on the market. But Movidius thinks that could change soon, thanks to its brand new chip: the Myriad 2 vision processor unit (VPU). "The Myriad 2 is going to provide more than 20x the power efficiency of the Myriad 1, and enable camera features that were not possible before in mobile devices," CEO Remi El-Ouazzane tells me. If you'll recall, Tango's original tech brought faster focus, improved depth of field, near-optical zooming and higher light sensitivity to smartphone cameras (and now, tablets). It also let researchers scan a room in 3D to provide interior navigation, among other cool tricks.

However, processing a Teraflop of image data a per second burned a lot of power with the project's original Myriad 1 chip. The Myriad 2 consumes 500mW of power while processing up 2 Teraflops per second of data -- a twentyfold gain in processing efficiency. (For reference, the Snapdragon 805 reportedly uses 3-4 watts.) With 12 "lanes," it also supports 6 HD cameras at once and can process 600-megapixels per second. With significantly more horsepower and much less battery draw, that means the new VPU could be installed in most smartphones, not just purpose-built devices like the Tango smartphone or tablet. Movidius says that the Myriad 2 could function as a standalone processor in certain devices, or act as a co-processor to a mobile CPU.

As far as Google's Project Tango goes, there's no word yet if it will switch from the Myriad 1 to the new chip. But Google has already announced a partnership with LG for a consumer Tango device next year, and will likely want the improved technology. Though El-Ouazzane wouldn't confirm the new processor for Tango, he pointed out that Movidius had a "very strong relationship with the Project Tango team."

Depth sensors, lenses and a vision chip will improve picture taking without making smartphones huge, but the benefits don't stop there. Wearable and panorama cameras like the Centr camera (another Movidius partner) are other potential product categories. The Myriad 2 excels in stitching 360 degree images from multiple lenses, and the extra battery efficiency would be particularly useful in small wearable devices.

Consumer versions of Tango-like devices would also open up a lot of far-out applications. On top of the scary realistic Matterport scanner (above), Movidius also pointed to the zSpace 3D display, a device that uses high speed gesture recognition to let you manipulate virtual objects in 3D (below). Your smartphone could also become as adept as a Kinect at motion and gesture sensing, opening up richer and deeper gaming and virtual reality applications. El-Ouazzane brought up Amazon's Fire Phone with Firefly as another example of the type of consumer-leaning object recognition apps we could see with the Myriad 2 (though he added that Movidius is not working with Amazon). To enable such apps, the company created a new SDK that makes it much easier for developers to access the Myriad 2's bag of tricks.

For now, it's just a hunk of silicon until devices start to arrive. But El-Ouazzane is confident with the Myriad 2 and how it will change smartphone cameras and vision processing. "A lot of money was invested to get to this point. It's going to be a dramatic departure from where we are today." But we've heard that before: Nokia's camera-centric phones didn't set the world on fire, 3D camera phones never flew, and the multi-sensored Fire phone remains a huge question mark. But of course we'd all like to take much better photos and even scan our cat -- smartphone tech is getting a bit dull.