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FPGA’s Final Frontier

Programmable Logic at CES

It is the final and biggest frontier for field programmable gate arrays.  FPGA companies jumping into the gargantuan consumer electronics market – estimated at over 135 billion dollars this year in the US alone – may find it’s like swimming from a fishbowl into the ocean.  Although the programmable logic pecking order may have been well established back in the home aquarium, jumping out into the big sea changes the rules dramatically. 

In this new domain, where trade shows like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) count their attendees with six digits despite restricting registration to only “industry insiders” –  the stakes are higher and the priorities are different than in the well-worn telecommunications infrastructure market where FPGAs cut their teeth.  Unfamiliar and formidable predators stalk this new “ecosystem” with a vengeance, protecting well-established turf with deeply-entrenched technology.  Unlike the ocean, however, the consumer electronics industry exists in a state of constant chaos – where the only rule is rapid change.  Our recent visit to CES convinced us that FPGAs are infiltrating this space more than ever.  Despite the fact that there were no FPGA company booths at this year’s CES, the presence of programmable logic could be felt in the suites, in the wings, and most definitely in the cutting-edge consumer products on display.

Xilinx CoolRunner-II Design Kit

We started the show off with a visit to the Xilinx suite to see how the world’s largest FPGA company was faring in this ferocious new neighborhood.  It turns out the company is fending off the sharks quite nicely, rising from number six to number two (behind IBM) in worldwide ASIC/PLD revenue since 1999.  Xilinx is attacking the high-volume world primarily with their low-cost Spartan-3 FPGA families and with their CoolRunner CPLDs.  These high-volume products now account for 35% (and growing) of the company’s total revenue.  

At CES, Xilinx had a number of demonstrations running to prove that programmable logic is ready for its consumer-electronics close-up.  The company walked us through their strategy for high-volume penetration, which includes silicon platforms, development boards, and IP aimed at specific, high-value segments like flat-panel displays, portable handsets, and automotive infotainment.  They also ran through their new design security features – critical to many of these high-volume applications.

Xilinx Spartan-3E Display Development board

Digital displays are fertile ground for FPGAs’ benefits as the plethora of fast-changing video standards makes slippery footing for those contemplating custom chip designs.  FPGAs bring a level of flexibility to the video standards area with enough power to handle heavy-lifting chores like scaling, de-interlacing, and real-time image enhancement and optimization.   Xilinx isn’t the only FPGA company to notice the display opportunity.  Others, including arch-rival Altera, have made significant penetration into the digital display domain.

Xilinx was also demonstrating several of their automotive development kits.  The company has put significant effort into the automotive segment as well, releasing automotive-specific versions of their FPGAs and CPLDs with the required levels of qualification including ISO-TS16949, PPAP, and AEC-Q100.  On display in their suite were bundled development kits for infotainment systems including instrument cluster, audio, and rear-seat video entertainment – as well as their new MOST development platform for creating systems to connect to the popular MOST bus.

Later, we caught up with QuickLogic President and CEO Thomas Hart for lunch and a trip to QuickLogic’s demo suite.  QuickLogic is all about highly-targeted applications these days, choosing to focus their resources on almost ASSP-like solutions with a major programmable logic component.  This strategy delivers a product that has the domain-optimized benefits of a standard product with enough flexibility to allow programming-in differentiating features.  Because the company specializes in antifuse-type devices, they also have exceptional low-power performance.  For this reason, they’ve aimed at power-sensitive markets like portable consumer/prosumer media players, navigation, smartphones, and wireless datacards.

“Just delivering gates is a losing game,” observes Hart.  “To differentiate yourself, you have to offer additional, unique value in IP and services.”  QuickLogic has been doing just that, partnering with other suppliers to provide solutions rather than just silicon.  In the markets the company is targeting, it makes a great deal of sense.  Design teams in those industries don’t automatically look to programmable logic.  Often, they are put off by the traditional approaches to FPGA design.  Bundling solutions with IP lowers the barrier to entry and makes the integration of programmable logic a smooth and simple process.

QuickLogic’s suite was packed with demo hardware, including a personal media player demo where an Eclipse II FPGA worked with a Marvell PXA270 processor to provide connectivity to IDE and PCI; a Mainstone development kit for HDD and wireless LAN development via PCI and IDE respectively; a Colibri touch-panel demo with a PolarPro FPGA and a PXA3xx processor, where the PolarPro provides connectivity between the processor and frame buffers and other display-related components; a Chrontel/QuickLogic platform for TV-out in handheld devices; and an Analog Devices BlackFin platform using PolarPro to connect through SD/SDIO to SD cards, DVB-H, and WiFi, and through IDE to a mini-HDD.

Altera announced another DLP-related partnership during the show, working with SANYO to incorporate HardCopy structured-ASIC devices (designed originally in Altera Stratix FPGAs) into their PLV-Z5 home projector.  Altera has a compelling story in this market, as design teams can initially create their systems with high-end FPGAs and then cost-reduce after the bugs are shaken out and the standards and features have stabilized using the HardCopy structured ASIC conversion option.

The new SANYO projectors were on display with a plethora of other new display technologies in the main hall of the CES exhibits.  The exhibits themselves expanded out for acres, intimidating many show-goers with their sheer size.  As we explored the enormity of the world’s largest electronics trade show, FPGAs and CPLDs were hiding quietly behind the scenes, making their presence known in the diverse feature sets and differentiation in high-end consumer equipment, the fast time-to-market for innovative products, and the dissolution of the traditional notion of a “high-volume” product into a complex array of slightly differentiated, specialized devices.

Trade shows are all about getting the audience’s attention on products.  As you wander the show floor for hours, literally thousands of purpose-built attention-getters scream for your focus.  Your brain is forced to perform real-time triage, filtering and trimming the incoming cacophony, narrowing the noise to just what your conscious can cope with.  Amidst this active mental noise cancellation, it is not too surprising that many of us at a mega-show like CES end up almost ignoring our 140,000 fellow attendees as they stumble past in their similarly over-stimulated stupors.

Laura Domela, our chief designer, is also a well-known photographer.  During CES, she turned her lens on a few of those anonymous attendees as they strolled through an interactive advertising exhibit on their way to – wherever they were going.  In much the same spirit as her critically-acclaimed photo book “Fietsen,” (view Fietsen project here) she captured people in their in-between moments – lost in thought and in transit.  As they move through an almost insanely crowded public space, these explorers seem oblivious to the crowds around them, the advertising messages being blasted at them, and even the innovative interactive exhibit through which they pass as it tattoos them with projected images in response to their movements.

20070116_ces_caliburn.jpg
Photographs courtesy of Laura Domela
(Click here to view the Convention series)

The exhibit, created by Monster Media, projects a giant image on a surface in a high-traffic area.  The image is created by multiple DLP projectors synchronized and aligned to create one seamless picture on the wall.  Infra-red motion detectors mounted above the space detect the locations of people as they pass – feeding the information to a computer that responds to their presence – in this case by altering the image in the vicinity of the passer-by with a leaflike-flurry of simulated floating papers and documents.  With the din of CES, many people flow through the display unaware of its clever elegance, and unaware of the eye of the camera as it freezes their trade show moment – badges and bags in tow, cell phones singing – off to hear the next pitch or demonstration.  Laura Domela’s work can be seen at www.domela.com.

20070116_ces_speakers.jpg
Photo courtesy of Continuum Audio Labs.

If digital design is a science and electronic analog design an art, the design of mechanical analog components such as speakers and turntables may be something akin to religion.  Our CES experience closed with a surreal, almost-religious experience as we wearily wandered into a high-end audio demonstration suite.  We’ll have a full feature article on the role of FPGAs in this system in a future issue, but suffice to say that listening to a more than $300,000.00 record player will make you forever regret parting with any vinyl record you ever discarded. 

Continuum Audio Labs chief designer Mark Doehmann beamed with a look that comes only from a deep-rooted passion as he spun record after record on his company’s ~$100,000 Continuum Caliburn-Cobra turntable system.  “We use FPGAs and lots of digital gear to control subsystems such as oil pumps, vacuum pumps, solenoids, motion control and feedback systems,” Doehmann explains. Clearly, the beloved Close’n Play of my childhood years is now a tick or two behind on the technology curve.

The goal of the super-exotic turntable system is to make a record album very flat, spin it at an extremely constant speed, isolate it completely from vibration, and provide an idealized landing zone where a $10,000 Lyra Olympos cartridge can precisely track every subtle nuance in the record groove.  This signal is transferred via exotic cabling through a Boulder Amplifiers pre-amplifier system to a pair of able-chassised kilowatt-plus monaural power amplifiers with over 80 power transistors in their output stages (estimated price for the Boulder setup – $130,000.00 US). 

Photo courtesy German-Physiks.

This immaculately-crafted analog high-power signal would be worthless, of course, if it couldn’t be used to precisely control the movement of air in the listening room.  This final stage of the process was left to a beautiful pair of German Physiks PQS402 2-way speakers (only 2-way?  Oh yeah! Read on.)  Each speaker boasts two bass cabinets, and each cabinet contains a 10-inch driver for low bass with two 8-inch passive radiators to get flat frequency response up to 140-240 Hz.  At this point, two Dick Diploe Driver (DDD) titan drivers take over for the rest of the audio spectrum.  The novel drivers, developed by Peter Dick – a derivative of the famous Walsh driver invented by American engineer Lincoln Walsh, are “transmission line” drivers that use a vertically-oriented steep cone that is flexed by a powerful voice coil.  This approach is said to provide very linear response over a wide frequency range and flat phase response with a uniform, omnidirectional radiating pattern.

What’s the point of all this ridiculously over-designed, obscenely-priced gear?  I closed my eyes and Louis Armstrong was standing in the room, just a few feet in front of me, singing and playing “St. James Infirmary”.  Louis’s trumpet gurgled just a touch at one point – he emptied his spit valve and went on.  His voice growled with its legendary grittiness…  I was fortunate enough to be present for the operation of an elaborate analog time-machine.

As we packed to leave the show, the enigma of the audio system stuck in my mind.  The application of advanced digital devices such as FPGAs and DSPs with the sole purpose of spinning an LP at a very, very uniform speed is a re-convergence of sorts.  It takes the best of modern technology and uses it to elevate legacy engineering to unimaginable levels.  The result is something off the beaten path in the modern world – a nod to ethereal engineering excellence.

 “It was a shame we had to dismantle it all,” Doehmann continues. “As you can see, playing LPs makes people want to sit down, relax and stay. That was something we used to do before the CD came along and made us all too busy to listen to music as a pure pastime.

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Consumer Electronics Show 2007

Embedded Reporting from the Front Lines

The Consumer Electronics show is so large that it’s small.  Amidst the acres of exhibits and over 140,000 attendees, the topics and interests are so diverse that the event becomes a buffet of sorts, serving up a greater variety of technology than you can find anywhere in the world, but specializing in nothing.  Few of the companies exhibiting here consider CES their “big show” of the year.  That status is reserved for the more specialized shows that go into exhaustive detail on any of the sub-subjects sampled at CES.

From an embedded design perspective, you’ll hear far more from companies like ARM, MIPS, and Intel at processor-specific forums and conferences.  You’ll learn much more about Linux at any one of the specialized events in that universe.  You’ll get more memory, storage, and connectivity details at a wide variety of venues.  Where CES does excel, however, is in putting the entire embedded design world into context.  The products showcased here, with their trillions of MIPS of embedded processing power and billions of lines of device software, put into perspective the net result of all that embedded technology when it finally finds its way downstream into the hands of the general public.

The thing most in evidence at CES is the idea of connecting people.  We want to see each other perfectly reproduced in the glowing color of giant plasma displays, super-sharp computer monitors, portable phones, PDAs and music devices, and digital cameras and imaging equipment.  We want to hear each other accurately enunciated through Bluetooth headsets, rumbling home theater systems, elegant audiophile earpieces, and exotic high-end audio speakers.  We want to communicate with each other with ubiquitous connectivity that can pass our messages instantly wherever and whenever we are with voice, data, and video resources at our disposal.  We must be lonely and afraid.

From the days when a device with an embedded computer was novel and we assumed that digital electronics would primarily be of value in balancing our checkbooks, we have transformed the world into a place where it seems to make sense to develop a winter jacket with a few million transistors on board just to handle daily coat-computing tasks.  Absurd fiction?  Hardly.  The weatherproof controls on the sleeve operate the portable media device nestled safely in an inside pouch.  Headphone connections are well-placed so the active snowboarder doesn’t snag anything as she spins 360s on the half-pipe while privately rockin-out to “I Predict a Riot” by Keizer Chiefs, then taps the “next track” button on her sleeve so she can catch some air to “Rooftops” by the Prophets before she cruises on down the slope.

If we extrapolate the current technology trends, we find that transistors, processing power, and memory become ubiquitous commodities that are almost infinitely inexpensive.  That means that our embedded consumer offerings will have to differentiate themselves by features, content, and aesthetic design.  In many markets (such as portable media players and mobile phones), this trend is already firmly established.  Apple’s dominance in the portable media player market, for example, is more a function of physical aesthetics and content than anything deeply technical.  Behind the scenes, they boot their micro-HDD one sector at a time, just like the rest of us.

As embedded designers, we have a profound effect on these trends which, in turn, have a profound effect on the world we live in.  Consider the case of a content-generating friend of ours, singer Storm Large [WEBSITE].  Storm’s single “Ladylike” made number five on the Billboard charts late last year with no recording label, no radio play, and no album.  Even a few years ago, this would have been an impossible feat.  Portable media players, internet distribution, and iTunes-like interfaces are transforming the music industry, dramatically expanding the number of artists to whom the general public has access.  Media players are filled with an increasingly large and diverse collection of tracks, and consumers are still coming to grips with how to manage and maintain all that music.

CES Exhibitor MusicIP has one angle on managing that content and adding differentiation to your embedded media player.  Their proprietary mix-making technology is available as hardware IP for embedded developers.  MusicIP scans digital audio tracks and profiles them – enabling listeners to identify a song, artist, album or mood that strikes their fancy, and then generating a complementary playlist from the listener’s own library.  In this age of music devices with multi-gigabit storage capacities, this more intuitive access to matching music may be the kind of differentiating feature that lets a media device rise above the deluge of disks, decoders, and D-As flooding the portable music market.

Intel’s booth featured embedded computing in another novel application: Expresso Fitness’s Spark S2 web-enabled, virtual-reality-enhanced fitness bike.  The exercise bike simulates road courses in a first-person-rider, video-game-like experience, where the pedal effort is modulated by the virtual terrain, and the rider is pitted against virtual competitors or even real riders at other locations via the WAN connection.  The bikes, spawning what the company calls the “exertainment” market, are currently targeted at health clubs and fitness centers.

Microsoft was at the show, primarily touting their new, non-embedded Vista operating system.  For those of us developing connected embedded devices, however, Vista will likely be at the other end of the line for many of our satellite-server-like applications.  You’ll want to brush up on the implications of Vista before you start docking your device’s USB connector with a Vista-running desktop machine.

Although Intel and AMD dominated the “big processor company booth” scene – it is likely that far more machines on the show floor were powered by ARM and MIPS processors than either of the two big desktop brands.  MIPS claims that 95% of cable modems, 70% of DVD recorders, 76% of set-top boxes, and 72% of VoIP applications use their processor IP.  ARM, on the other hand, is dominant in the gargantuan cell phone and portable media player markets.  The number of ARM processors whirring away on the CES show floor at one time – just in the mobile phones carried by the 140,000 show attendees – probably exceeded the Pentium tally in the booths.

A few hard-core embedded companies had a booth presence at the mega-show.  Mentor Graphics Embedded Division (formerly known as Accelerated Technology) had a staffed booth in the “emerging technology” section.  Probably less than .01% of the show’s attendees knew what to make of the Freescale development platform Mentor had on display. However, if that .01% included the guy two booth rows over who is chief designer for that next multi-million unit must-have media device, Mentor’s booth efforts will have paid off nicely.

All in all, our CES experience was a fun and enlightening one.  Taking a peek down the river, where much of the technology we spawn in the embedded computing space grows to maturity and public distribution, we can see the impact of embedded computing on the average citizen – the one who’s never heard of embedded processors, AMBA busses, DDR2, SDIO, or 802.16.  They just get up every morning, switch on the DVR-recorded news on their 1080p plasma display, drop their cell phone and media player into their digital parka, clip on their Bluetooth headset, and head out to meet a customer in their hybrid SUV guided by integrated GPS navigation.  Are we arrogant to think we’re changing the world?

For more CES coverage, see our companion article in FPGA and Structured ASIC Journal [CLICK HERE FOR ARTICLE].  There, you’ll read about programmable logic penetration into the consumer electronics market, Laura Domela’s CES photo/art project, and the best record player you can buy for over $300,000.00. 

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