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Google’s Pixel 2 has a hidden AI chip to make your photos better

Known as the Pixel Visual Core, the dedicated image processing chip takes responsibility for running image enhancements such as HDR. These would normally be executed by the phone’s system processor. By offloading the processing onto a dedicated chip, the enhancements can be applied more quickly.
The octa-core coprocessor is capable of running over 3 trillion operations each second, without any significant power demands. Each core contains 512 million individual arithmetic logic units (ALUs) that run calculations to optimise images. The specially crafted hardware is combined with uniquely optimised software to create an image processor that enhances photos five times faster than the Pixel 2’s regular chipset.
“Using Pixel Visual Core, HDR+ can run 5x faster and at less than one-tenth the energy than running on the application processor,” explained Google. “A key ingredient to the [processor’s] efficiency is the tight coupling of hardware and software – our software controls many more details of the hardware than in a typical processor. Handing more control to the software makes the hardware simpler and more efficient.”

Pixel Visual Core close-up image

Pixel Visual Core close-up image

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Initially, the Pixel Visual Core will only be used by the Pixel 2’s HDR+ camera option. This is an expanded HDR feature to improve the quality of photos with a wide range of brightness and contrast levels. The use of the dedicated coprocessor will let you continue to take photos while the Visual Core works on applying HDR+ in the background. This currently has to be done on the Pixel’s Snapdragon 835 system processor, consuming power and processor resources.
Google’s also going to expose the Pixel Visual Core to third-party app developers. A set of APIs will allow Android camera apps to utilise the Visual Core, opening the door to more advanced image effects, reduced latency and a longer battery life. Because the chip is fully programmable, Google will continue to expand its capabilities over time by adding new image processing and machine learning algorithms.
The Pixel Visual Core currently lies dormant within the Pixel 2. Google will activate it with a software update when Android Oreo 8.1 is released. It will be available in developer preview form “in the coming weeks.”
The existence of the dedicated coprocessor is a significant step forward for Google’s smartphone hardware, allowing it to assert its position at the very top of the market. Previously, only Apple’s iPhone used a dedicated imaging coprocessor in this way. Google’s lead makes it probable that similar chips will be adopted by other brands for their Android handsets next year, giving app developers the chance to create more powerful filters, effects and enhancements.

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