Will People Stop Buying Electronics?
It is always fascinating to follow trend lines, and then to extrapolate them out toward infinity to see what absurd conclusions you can reach. We do that a lot with Moore’s Law around here, and it’s pretty easy to come to absurd conclusions extrapolating on those particular exponentials.
Even with the absurdity disclaimer in place, however, it is interesting to look to the not-too-distant future implications of our most recent half-century of progress. Yes, the cost of a transistor has dropped to … so close to zero that we might want to finally just call it zero. In truth, most of the cost of designing a silicon chip today is the non-recurring engineering costs, not the cost of the silicon area. By the time you amortize all those huge expenses over your production run, the cost of the silicon area itself becomes pretty insignificant. In fact, silicon starts to look a lot more like software - where all of the cost is for development and the incremental cost of an additional copy is basically zero.
Soft Machines Uses Combination of Tricks to Improve Performance
Still trying to juggle those flaming chainsaws? Splendid, because now we’re going to see how it’s done.
Last week we introduced Soft Machines and its VISC processor, a new CPU design that runs native ARM code even though it’s not an ARM processor. Soft Machines says VISC can also be tailored to run x86 code, Java code, or just about anything else the company decides is worthwhile. It’s a tabula rasa microprocessor: able to run just about anything you throw at it.
Its other major trick is that it can extract more single-thread performance out of a given binary program than any other CPU. And do so without expending a horrendous number of transistors or consuming planetary levels of energy. Let’s start with that part.
Soft Machines’ VISC Processor Takes an Unorthodox Approach
Excuse me while I juggle these flaming chainsaws. While riding a unicycle on a tightrope crossing over Niagara Falls. Blindfolded. Challenging enough for ya?
That’s essentially what a new company called Soft Machines is attempting. It’s a new firm with an entirely new microprocessor design that is taking on the two toughest challenges in the business: how to increase performance while reducing power, and how to run programs written for other processors. Oh, and they’re competing with ARM for embedded RISC processor cores. And then they’ll be taking on Intel and AMD with x86 processors. Challenging enough for ya?
It’s not every day you get to see a brand new microprocessor company. What do you think this is – 1998? Yet Soft Machines thinks it’s cracked the secret code to making embedded processors that are both fast and small, quick yet power-efficient, new yet totally compatible with existing binary code.
HCC Embedded Strikes Efficiency/Freedom Balance
We humans are funny creatures. When it comes to how we organize ourselves, we like for someone to be in charge. But we don’t want them to be too much in charge. Exactly how that balance is set is a point of constant friction around the world, and there’s no one right setpoint for everyone or every culture.
System design inherits this ambivalence. We don’t want chaos, but we want maximal individual freedom and flexibility. So we want standards, but not too many. And we like reference designs, but we want to be able to customize them and make them our own.
It’s all about adding value: we all want to build something that’s uniquely us. From a business standpoint, we’re hoping that “that special something” will excite customers and become a sales differentiator. But, while we want to put our custom touches on it, we don’t want to develop everything from scratch, and we tend to eschew redundancy as being inefficient (unless it’s a requirement for safety purposes, in which case we go along begrudgingly).
Sensors Stay Steady
On April 19, 1965, Electronics magazine ran an article called “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits.” It was written by an engineer from Fairchild Semiconductor, and it contained a simple prediction that turned out to be the trend that changed the world. Gordon Moore’s article is the reference point for the explosive growth in semiconductor capability that has lasted for almost fifty years now.
In that same year, there was another article in that same magazine describing a device invented by Harvey Nathanson of Westinghouse Labs that combined a tungsten rod over a transistor to form a “microscopic frequency selective device” - the very first MEMS device. The device was later patented as the “Resonant Gate Transistor.”
So - MEMS and logic transistors have both been around for almost fifty years. And, since MEMS and logic transistors are fabricated in the same factories, using the same techniques, and used in the same systems, there is a natural temptation to draw correlations between them.
Beer, Tennis, Football and Input Recognition with MEMS-Enhanced Devices
What do head injuries, beer, and smart tennis rackets have in common? The MEMS Executive Congress, that's what! (Thought I was going somewhere else with that, didn't ya?) Keeping with our Friday Fun theme, this week's Fish Fry digs into how MEMS-enhanced designs can measure the amount of beer left in your keg, alert your coach about a potential head injury, and improve your tennis game. We chat about several cool designs submitted to this year's MEMS Executive Congress Technology Showcase by companies Nod Labs, Babolat, and Kegdata. Also this week, we look at the way Force Impact Technologies wants to change how we address head injuries on the ball field.
Business Models Collide, Over and Over Again
There’s an old saying that programming is – ahem – like practicing the world’s oldest profession. In both cases, there is no inventory, no fixed overhead costs, and no actual goods sold. Instead, the “product” is really a service. Both depreciate rapidly and both are labor-intensive. Most of all, practitioners get to sell their product to one customer and then sell it again to somebody else. With no cost-of-goods-sold (COGS), every sale should be pure profit, right? And yet, people in neither profession ever seem to get rich. What’s wrong with that business model?
I can’t tell if Android is doing really well or if it’s heading into a downward spiral. On one hand, Android has taken the embedded world by storm, powering all sorts of new devices. What could be better than a free operating system, and one packed with features, too? And open source? With lots of support? Sign me up!
Is Crowdfunding a Good Option For Your Million-Dollar Idea?
“More ideas are lost than found.” That was Maker Faire co-founder Dale Doughtery’s response to a reporter’s question about intellectual property concerns in the show-and-tell environment of the World Maker Faire (quoted in Kevin Morris’s terrific article about the faire). This simple statement seems especially true in the world of engineering. How many ideas for new projects, new start-up companies, and new inventions never make it out of their would-be inventor’s brain? The electrical engineering industry has probably produced millions of lost ideas. Some of these lost ideas may be better off never becoming a reality, but it’s almost certain that there are some truly brilliant or even genius ideas that never come to fruition.
Getting a new idea off the ground can be particularly difficult in this industry, where the inventions and innovations tend to be technical and complicated. Trying to find investors and funding for a project is no picnic for any inventor or innovator, but it can get especially tricky when you’re trying to explain complex electrical engineering concepts to, say, the panel on “Shark Tank.”
Rambus’s AES Crypto IP Resists DPA Attacks
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
You have got to be kidding me. I mean, I’m an engineer. I know how stuff works. And you’re telling me you can somehow snag my computer’s encryption keys out of thin air? No way. No. @%$#-ing. Way.
I’ve seen it happen. I didn’t believe it at first, but there’s nothing quite like a live demonstration to make you a convert. It’s time to stock up on tinfoil hats. Here’s the background: Practically every computer, cell phone, tablet, cable TV decoder, satellite box, smartcard, modern passport, or other gizmo uses encryption in some way.
Vesper Announces Piezoelectric Microphones
Microphones are not for the faint of heart. There is a sordid history of MEMS microphones, replete with big companies crying “Uncle!” and with legal vitriol.
Unlike something as “simple” as an accelerometer (with apologies to anyone that’s worked damned hard on a fine accelerometer), there’s been less rush to compete once everyone figured out how hard microphones can be.
And so we have a few deeply entrenched incumbents manning the sound.
But microphones still look interesting as an opportunity. We saw some time ago that multiple microphones are becoming a thing. Why? For the same reason that high-quality sound recording uses them. By recording an orchestra and the audience with two mikes, for example, you now have two tracks, and you can subtract the audience track from the orchestra track to get a cleaner version of the orchestra.