Back in July, Microsoft announced that it was creating custom silicon for the future version of its HoloLens Mixed Reality headset. Harry Shum, executive vice president of the company’s Artificial Intelligence and Research Group explained at the time that the second version of the Holographic Processing Unit (HPU) would incorporate a dedicated AI coprocessor for natively implementing deep neural networks.
By creating its own AI chips, Microsoft can process all the information coming from on-board sensors locally for low-latency. Custom AI chips are something that other manufacturers such as Apple and Huawei have been exploring as well: notably, the “Kirin AI” processor in the new Huawei Mate10 is capable of delivering full offline translations via Microsoft’s Translator Android app.
As it turns out, Microsoft is interested in developing custom AI chips for devices other than HoloLens. In an interview with CNBC, Corporate VP of Devices Panos Panay explained that this is something Microsoft needs to do to makes its own hardware smarter. "We have to continue to find those pieces of silicon, those chipsets that have to be developed to bring sensors to life, to connect people with each other and with their products," the exec said.
Panay revealed that Microsoft’s silicon group is developing new AI chips in-house, but the company is also working with various partners to create new silicon. Interestingly, the exec said that Microsoft is open to the idea of licensing its own technology to other companies. "I think one of the most important things that we do in Surface and in our chip development is... the opportunity to make sure we get the technology created within Surface and then proliferate it with our partners and give everybody the opportunity to use it," Panay told CNBC.
For now, we just know that we'll see an AI chip from Microsoft in the next version of the HoloLens, and that device isn't expected to be released before 2019. Following recent initiatives from Apple and Huawei, we can definitely see Microsoft integrating AI chips into some of its Surface mobile products in the future. Presumably, Microsoft's custom silicon work may also have something to do with the recent rumors about a new Microsoft mobile device codenamed "Andromeda," including rumors about a mixed reality component supposedly coming with the new device. If Microsoft is indeed working on such a device, it could use of AI to differentiate itself from the competition.