Expect better graphics in future iPhones and iPads, thanks to ARM's Geomerics acquisition

ARM, the company that develops the chip architecture used by Apple in its iOS devices, has acquired Geomerics, a developer of graphics technology that's used to create realistic lighting effects in games. The acquisition may lead to ARM processor designs with more sophisticated graphics capabilities. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, according to VentureBeat.

Geomerics' claim to fame is a software tool called Enlighten, licensed by video game developers to produce more realistic and dramatic lighting and shadowing effects in their games. Enlighten is cross-platform; it works on game consoles, iOS, Android and PCs. It's available either as a standalone software development kit (SDK) or integrated into the broadly-licensed Unreal Engine 3 and 4 technology from Epic Games; there's also plug-in support for Max and Maya, to assist 3D artists working on games.

ARM is the dominant mobile processor designer; their products are used in Apple iPhones, iPod touches and iPads, Android tablets and smartphones, smartwatches, laptops including some ChromeBook variants, PCs and and other devices. ARM is a "fabless" semiconductor company: they design chips architectures and the instruction set used in the chips, but license the designs to other companies which in turn manufacture the actual processors.

Apple's vaunted A7 chip, for example - the brains inside the iPhone 5s, iPad Air and Retina iPad mini - is based on the ARMV8-A architecture. Besides Apple, ARM's clients involve Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Samsung. Apple's partnership with ARM goes back to the late 1980s, when it sought a suitable low-power processor design to work in the Newton MessagePad PDA.

The PR information posted to Geomerics' web site is carefully worded to soothe current Geomerics customers, suggesting that the ownership change will have little effect on Geomerics' day to day operations. But ARM does say that its acquired Geomerics in part because of its suitability for mobile devices, which suggests that Geomerics-derived instructions may be embedded in future versions of the Systems on a Chip (SOCs) that ARM designs.

What does this mean for Apple? For the short term, nothing - after all, Apple's current mobile designs use PowerVR graphics processors. It's going to take a while for Geomerics' technology to make it into ARM designs, and longer still for licensees like Apple to make use of it. But as ARM integrates Geomerics technology into future chip designs, we could see iOS devices with even more sophisticated graphics technology than we do now. Mobile devices are already starting to give consoles a run for their money; ARM's acquisition of Geomerics looks like a solid step towards keeping future mobile devices competitive as gaming machines.