SOMEONE at the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) must have screwed up by granting Microsoft a patent on using a graphics processing unit (GPU) to encode video.
The patent, entitled "Accelerated video encoding using a graphics processing unit" was granted to Microsoft yesterday, despite being filed nearly six years ago. Not only is it surprising, to say the least, that a patent would be granted on such a wide ranging and seemingly fundamental process but that it was awarded to Microsoft, of all companies, and not a GPU hardware and driver software design company.
Unlike many patents, this one really does do what it says on the tin. Microsoft describes it as, "A video encoding system uses both a central processing unit (CPU) and a graphics processing unit (GPU) to perform video encoding. The system implements a technique that enables the GPU to perform motion estimation for video encoding. The technique allows the GPU to perform a motion estimation process in parallel with the video encoding process performed by the CPU."
So basically encoding video by using both a CPU and a GPU is what's being touted here as a revolutionary new technology worthy of receiving royalties. It makes you wonder what other software processes can be granted a patent. Perhaps Microsoft has something in the pipeline for GPU accelerated web browsers that it will spring on the competition in order to stay ahead in the browser wars.
The abstract essentially describes what both AMD and Nvidia have been harping on about for years regarding the potential and performance of programmable GPUs. As Microsoft's patent application puts it, "The performance of video encoding using such a system is greatly accelerated as compared to encoding using just the CPU." You'd be forgiven for thinking that perhaps an Nvidia employee wrote the application.
The application goes into further detail on the specifics of encoding and mentions the use of DirectX 9's pixel and vertex shader engines to parallelise pixel encoding. The problem for firms that flog GPU enabled video encoding software is that the wording in the application is vague. For instance, prior to the mention of DirectX 9, the application states, "GPU 121 [a reference GPU] may be configured in a variety of manner." With language like that in a patent you know that sooner or later the lawyers are going to get busy, and rich.
Both AMD and Nvidia have been shipping software that does pretty much what might arguably be covered by the patent that Microsoft has just been awarded. It remains to be seen if the two firms will end up ponying up the cash to use the Vole's now patented technology or whether they will try to invalidate the patent through the courts and challenges at the USPTO.
If challenged, Microsoft will argue that back in October 2004 it was slightly ahead of the game with its patent application, but given the wide-ranging nature and vague terminology of this patent, it seems likely that the Vole will face resistance should the firm actually try to enforce it. µ