One thing that Google left unannounced during its Pixel 2 launch event on October 4th is being revealed today: it’s called the Pixel Visual Core, and it is Google’s first custom system-on-a-chip (SOC) for consumer products. You can think of it as a very scaled-down and simplified, purpose-built version of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, Samsung’s Exynos, or Apple’s A series chips. The purpose in this case? Accelerating the HDR+ camera magic that makes Pixel photos so uniquely superior to everything else on the mobile market. Google plans to use the Pixel Visual Core to make image processing on its smartphones much smoother and faster, but not only that, the Mountain View also plans to use it to open up HDR+ to third-party camera apps.
The coolest aspects of the Pixel Visual Core might be that it’s already in Google’s devices. The Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL both have it built in, but laying dormant until activation at some point “over the coming months.” It’s highly likely that Google didn’t have time to finish optimizing the implementation of its brand-new hardware, so instead of yanking it out of the new Pixels, it decided to ship the phones as they are and then flip the Visual Core activation switch when the software becomes ready. In that way, it’s a rather delightful bonus for new Pixel buyers. The Pixel 2 devices are already much faster at processing HDR shots than the original Pixel, and when the Pixel Visual Core is live, they’ll be faster and more efficient.
Looking at the layout of Google’s chip, which is dubbed an Image Processing Unit (IPU) for obvious reasons, we see something sort of resembling a regular 8-core SOC. Technically, there’s a ninth core, in the shape of the power-efficient ARM Cortex-A53 CPU in the top left corner. But the important thing is that each of those eight processors that Google designed has been tailored to handle HDR+ duties, resulting in HDR+ performance that is “5x faster and [uses] less than 1/10th the energy” of the current implementation, according to Google. This is the sort of advantage a company can gain when it shifts to purpose-specific hardware rather than general-purpose processing.
Google says that it will enable Pixel Visual Core as a developer option in its preview of Android Oreo 8.1, before updating the Android Camera API to allow access to HDR+ for third-party camera devs. Obviously, all of this tech is limited strictly to the Pixel 2 generation, ruling out current Pixel owners and other Android users. As much as Google likes to talk about enriching the entire Android ecosystem, the company is evidently cognizant of how much of a unique selling point its Pixel camera system is, and it’s working hard to develop and expand the lead that it has.
As a final note, Google’s announcement today says that HDR+ is only the first application to run on the programmable Pixel Visual Core, and with time we should expect to see more imaging and machine learning enhancements being added to the Pixel 2.