Nonprofit to bring Sega game console chips back to life

The chips could be used in small electronics or do-it-yourself projects

Processors that powered some of Sega's famous gaming consoles in the 1990s will come back to life starting later this year.

The newly formed Open Core Foundation wants to reintroduce in October older CPU designs of Hitachi chips, which were used to run operating systems and gaming consoles in the 1990s.

The chips were advanced for their time and could even be used today in electronics like sensor devices and do-it-yourself projects, said Shumpei Kawasaki, a member of the OCF, at the Hot Chips conference in Cupertino, California.

The goal is to provide low-cost, open-source CPU cores to the community involved in the development of products, Kawasaki said.

In October, OCF will release the design for its first core called J1, which is based on Hitachi's SH2 processor. The SH2 was used in the Sega Saturn gaming console, which started shipping in 1994.

OCF has reverse engineered the SH2 chip logic and design in J1. Also, the patents of SH2, which were released in 1993, are due to expire later this year, Kawasaki said.

In 2016, OCF will release the faster J2 core, which is based on the SH4 chip used in the Dreamcast gaming console, which shipped in 1998. The 32-bit chip will run at speeds of around 1GHz, but Kawasaki said the clock speed could be increased.

"By that time we'll actually come up with our version that runs at may be higher than 1GHz," Kawasaki said.

The J2 will likely be able to run an early version of Android, Kawasaki said.

It will be followed by a 64-bit chip called J3 in 2018, which will have floating point processing capabilities and a memory management unit.

Chips based on the cores could be fabricated by contract manufacturers like TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.), though it could be an expensive proposition, Kawasaki said.

Alternately, users can download a "bitstream," or simulated version, of the logic from OCF's website and load it on an FPGA (field-programmable gate array) like Xilinx Spartan-6 FPGA LX9 MicroBoard, which retails for US$89. That would be a cheaper and faster way to simulate the J cores.

Energy measurement company Smart Energy Instruments is using a simulation of J1 on a measurement board it provides to utility companies.

"They put it in fault-detection devices, power quality meters and so on," said Rich Larsen, president and chief operating officer of the company.

OCF has the same objectives as open-source hardware projects like OpenSparc or OpenRISC, which provide open-source chip architectures that can be easily replicated. But one struggle to keep these projects going is the lack of software developer involvement.

OCF recognizes the issue, and wants developers to be involved. Kawasaki also hopes the community will provide feedback on bugs and validate architecture.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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