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John Moussouris has created a multimedia chip that could change the face of communications. Now he hopes the world will . . . : Follow His MUSE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Moussouris was 15, spending Easter vacation with a Greek uncle who was the disciple of a local mystic, when he had his “intellectual awakening.” Studying a text on quantum mechanics one drowsy afternoon, Moussouris suddenly saw the patterns on the wallpaper become inverted: The white background became the prominent design and the black pattern became empty spaces in the wall.

Perception and the representation of information, Moussouris decided, were more important than the objects themselves. That realization, which stood quantum mechanics on its head, became a central theme in his doctoral dissertation at Oxford.

And it has become the driving force behind Moussouris’ current odyssey, MicroUnity Systems Engineering, which has for the last seven years been striving to develop a supercomputer-on-a-chip that will enable everyday appliances to process and transmit a rich mix of video, graphics and audio information.

The “media processor,” now nearly ready for sample production, can process multimediainformation at up to 100 times the speed of Intel’s flagship Pentium chip and is easily programmable for virtually any communications application. That capability could make the MicroUnity chip as important to the communications world as the Intel microprocessor has been to personal computers.

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Moussouris, who with his penetrating eyes, gaunt frame and graying beard looks, at 46, a little like a mystic himself, becomes highly animated when he talks about MicroUnity. It’s no accident the company’s acronym spells MUSE, and its product code names come from the muses of Greek mythology, who were said to inspire music and poetry.

Picking up a magazine-size electronic board affixed with a media processor, Moussouris describes how in just a few years such a board, for an extra $200, will be able to turn a regular television into a “broad-band” TV, or “bro-TV,” capable of alternatively handling cable or satellite TV, surfing the World Wide Web, providing high-resolution digital TV or acting as a video telephone.

“We’ll be inside TV sets, smart phones and wireless mobile devices,” Moussouris says. He expects the MicroUnity chip designs to be widely licensed to chip makers and communications companies and sold in huge quantities. “There are only 100 million PCs out there, but there are 5 billion telephones, televisions and radios.”

Sound a little farfetched? A lot of people think so.

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To begin with, the company has run through an estimated $150 million and has yet to demonstrate even a prototype.

“They’ve bitten off more than they can chew,” Will Strauss, head of market research at Forward Concepts in Tempe, Ariz., says flatly. Strauss has looked at the emerging area of media processors and thinks more targeted companies such as Chromatic Research, which is focusing on personal computer applications, have a better chance.

But Moussouris’ credentials demand that he be taken seriously. While at IBM in the late 1970s and early 1980s he was a pioneer in the development of Reduced Instruction Set Computing, or RISC, a new kind of microprocessor design, and he then went on to co-found MIPS Computer Systems, a microprocessor company that is now part of Silicon Graphics.

Craig Hanson, chief architect of MicroUnity’s media processor and formerly chief architect at Next Computer and MIPS, says Moussouris’ depth of knowledge and his focus on doing cutting edge research have helped attract top designers.

Moussouris “is an effective recruiter because other smart people like working for him,” adds William Randolph Hearst III, a close friend of Moussouris who helped finance MicroUnity. Hearst is now leading an ambitious venture called @Home, aimed at providing high-speed Internet access via cable TV.

It was Hearst who facilitated an introduction to cable titan John Malone, chief executive of Tele-Communications Inc. and a core backer of MicroUnity. And Moussouris made another important connection a few years ago when he hit it off with Nathan Myrvold, a fellow physicist and the top technology guru at Microsoft. Moussouris had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford; Myrvold had been at Cambridge. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates invested $15 million in MicroUnity. Motorola and Time Warner have also kicked in.

And lest anyone think Moussouris is merely a nerd, he has a much broader group of friends who offer advice and support--including Jerry Harrison, the Talking Heads guitarist and music producer, who met Moussouris at Harvard. “In school he majored in Greek [classics] and physics--that was pretty unusual,” recalls Harrison, who asked Moussouris to be the godfather of his son.

This august circle is hardly in evidence at MicroUnity’s Sunnyvale offices, which lack even a signboard. The company’s work was for years the best-kept secret in Silicon Valley, with the first details disclosed publicly only a few months ago. But tucked inside the sprawling facility of wooden beams and concrete is one of the most advanced chip-fabrication plants anywhere, staffed by some of the nation’s top chip designers.

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MicroUnity’s first product will be a cable modem, scheduled to be ready toward the end of the year. Although many manufacturers now offer cable modems, they have run into problems because of the uneven quality of the nation’s cable infrastructure.

“A cable modem using the media chip would operate like a Jeep Cherokee,” Moussouris says. “You could move at high speeds if the road is smooth, but you can also slow down and handle the rough spots.”

The media chip’s programmability makes it attractive to cable companies for use in a new generation of digital set-top boxes that will serve as gateways to an array of advanced services. Cable firms have been talking for years about the potential for 500-channel interactive TV, but the set-top boxes represent a major investment, and with current technology they would need to be replaced every few years.

“Software reprogrammability is extremely appealing,” says Bruce Ravenel, senior vice president at TCI Communications. A MicroUnity media processor embedded in a set-top box would allow TCI to upgrade its encryption codes for security or improve its picture quality without having to replace the entire unit. “We don’t get stuck with all this old stuff.”

Intel, the master of the microprocessor realm, is proposing new standards to sharply improve its Pentium chips’ ability to handle media. But that effort, Moussouris says, is “like trying to make a boat that flies. It’s easier to make an airplane that runs on water.”

Unlike Intel’s chip, which was designed to crunch numbers, MicroUnity’s architecture was designed with multimedia in mind. It’s a 128-bit chip, which means it processes four times the amount of information at one time as the Pentium, a 32-bit chip. And it uses a process called “super-threading” that breaks up information into different pathways so data can be quickly processed in one to five separate streams concurrently.

The media processor, in combination with two other chips the company has designed, can also be used as the guts of a telephone switch, a media computer or a cellular phone. Moussouris hopes the wide range of applications for which the chip can be used will help defray the staggering development costs. But time is starting to run out.

“John is definitely a visionary; he knows how to push the envelope,” says Dennis Allison, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University. “But to some extent, John has sold [his investors] a bill of goods. He’s an early provider, and that’s a dangerous place to be.”

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Skeptics say it could be years before the set-top box and cable modem market reach the huge volumes required to pay for the chip’s development. “It’s multiple technologies in search of a product,” says Linley Gwennap, editor of Microprocessor Report, an industry newsletter.

MicroUnity’s “view is more grandiose, but it may not be practical for three or four years,” says Siva Kumar, marketing vice president at Chromatic Research. Kumar says Chromatic’s media processor, which helps multimedia PCs process video and sound faster, will be in PCs in large numbers by year-end.

MicroUnity has certainly taken its time. Plans to use the chip in a workstation were shelved three years ago when the company couldn’t find anyone to build the chips because of capacity shortages. Moussouris says the setback was healthy because it allowed the company to design a stronger architecture supported by better software tools.

“As we design our media processors, we’re doing the hard work that allows another 99 products to be built,” he says.

Moussouris says the recent downturn in the chip industry has opened up capacity for his chips. The company’s own fabrication facility will focus on building the fanciest of the chips, which use gold instead of aluminum wiring to increase communications speeds.

And if the industry is skeptical, Moussouris doesn’t mind. He’s found himself on the wrong side of conventional wisdom before: He developed one of the early chess-playing computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, but he was never seduced by the mind-set, then current at the lab, that “thinking” computers had a great future. Sure enough, an artificial intelligence industry that sprung up around MIT quickly faded.

Instead, Moussouris went to IBM. But a critical comment he made about a new IBM product, the ill-fated IBM RT, landed him in hot water. While at Stanford University on sabbatical from IBM, Moussouris became a co-founder of MIPS, where he led the effort to use RISC designs to produce what was then the fastest microprocessor in the world. Moussouris concedes that he and his colleagues erred in not immediately licensing its technology, a mistake he says he won’t make with MicroUnity.

As MIPS began to focus on more short-term market goals, Moussouris began to dream of pushing the capability of processors to the limit. He figured that if a chip was designed to handle the maximum information possible in every cycle, it could operate 100 times faster.

“I could see how RISC technology created a whole industry by [increasing performance] by a factor of four,” Moussouris says. “Now we were looking at a factor of 100.”

Moussouris had kept in touch with his old Harvard roommate Hearst, who now encouraged him to start his own company.

The cable companies became eager backers. At a time when the cable industry was regarded as a technology backwater, “he had a fire in the belly to do something in our industry,” Ravenel says. “All he could talk about was cable boxes.”

But can the company survive long enough to see its designs adopted? Implementation has never been Moussouris’ strong point. Insiders say that at MIPS, Moussouris was continually pushing to do research that had little to do with the company’s immediate commercial mandate. At MicroUnity, he backed a risky investment in production facilities that critics say diverted the company from getting its products to market.

Even friends who think Moussouris has good technology and a substantial market lead warn that he is in a race with time.

“A lead is not something you sit on,” Hearst says. “Time to market is the fundamental question. You need to execute quickly.”

Moussouris agrees. He recently hired a senior executive from Northern Telecom as president of MicroUnity and has begun to build a marketing department. But he figures social and technology trends toward the use of two-way video and other media in telephones, TVs and the Internet can only help his cause.

“At the end of the day,” Moussouris says, harking back to his own muses, “perception and communications are fundamental to the intensity of living.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Turning the World Digital

The integrated circuit gave birth to the microprocessor, which in turn made the personal computer possible. Now the “media processor,” developed by MicroUnity, aims to push the digital revolution further into the communications world by allowing signals from TVs, satellites, cellular phones and other communications devices to be handled by a single chip.

1. Integrated Circuit: Created in 1959 by Jack S. Kilby, an engineer at Texas Instruments and Robert N. Noyce, a physicist at Fairchild Semiconductor, integrated circuits combine many transistors on a single silicon chip. This makes it possible to have complex electronic devices with thousands or even millions of transistors--crucial to building speedy, practical computers.

2. Microprocessors: The microprocessor is an integrated circuit that obtains information from an external memory device to perform arithmetic and logic functions--essentially performing all the key functions of the computer on a single chip. Inexpensive microprocessors are now found not only in PCs, but in items ranging from cars to microwave ovens./ Intel built the first important microprocessors in the early 1970s and continues to dominate the market.

3. Media Processor: MicroUnity has developed a new kind of microprocessor that it calls a media processor, designed to handle large volumes of communications data on a single chip. Using a technique called “super-threading,” the chip breaks up information into bits that can be processed concurrently, It can thus process video and voice data 50 to 100 times faster than Intel’s Pentium chip. The chips will turn communications devices such as TVs and cellular phones into versatile tools that can be programmed for a variety of applications.

* Researched by JENNIFER OLDHAM / Los Angeles Times

* Leslie Helm can be reached via e-mail at leslie.helm@latimes.com


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