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Archive for September, 2011

What do Medical Devices, Facial Recognition, Genivi, and Clustering Processors have in Common?

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

All of these very cool technologies – showcased by Intel’s ECA partners at IDF2011 – provide a clear direction for future trends in medical, consumer and automotive electronics.

Let’s start with the cluster controller and backplane technology.

Designers that require blazingly fast backplane buses are happy to see the development of PCI Express, Generation 3 products.  The latest version of the popular interface will provide an impressive eight gigabits per second (Gbits/s) per lane and 128 Gbit/s in designs using x16 port widths. Such performance will be welcomed in the enterprise computing, storage and communications spaces.

IDT demonstrated its latest high-performance PCIe switches alongside  re-timing devices for longer distance application. Ken Curt, Sr. Product Marketing Manager of Enterprise Computing Division at IDT, gave me the one-minute demonstration tour:

“Here are our newly announced Gen3 packet-switch devices. In this demonstration (see Figure 1), we are using a Gen2 server since we can not get a Gen3 server. The Gen2 signal comes out over cable to go into our packet switch which does a rates conversion from 5Gbits to 8Gbits per sec. The 8Gbit/sec signal – 8 lanes in parallel – is sent to a Gen3 Sata-SAS controller card from LSI logic.”

“Also, we are tapping off to a LeCroy bus analyzer (not shown) to verify that we are running 8Gb/s across 8 lanes. Further, we are showing our Eye-diagram capability to see the waveform inside of our chip and optimize the signal configuration.

“For longer traces and longer cables, we also provide PCI Express Gen3 re-timing devices, which will easily extend across 30 inches of trace or backplane.”

Short, sweet and too the point. Great demo, Ken!  

Figure 1: Ken Curt from IDT demonstrations a PCI Express Gen3 (converted from Gen2) data storage application at IDF2011.

 

Turning from data storage and cloud computing backplane technology, let’s now take a brief look at the medical space.

Embedded and mobile software vendor Wind River introduced a new platform for medical device development at the show. The platform, built on the company’s real-time operating system (RTOS), includes a collection of embedded software development tools, networking and middleware run-time technologies, such as IPsec, SSL, IPv6 and USB.

Having a platform is great, but experiencing the end-product is even better (see Figure 2). Automated “cuff” blood pressuring measuring devices are nothing new. What is new is having such automated devices meet stringent vendor qualification summary (VQS) processes – which is part of the company’s development platform.

Equally important to accurate monitoring of ones’ blood pressure is displaying the information in a user-friendly format (see Figure 3). This is accomplished through a collection of development tools known as the Tilcon Graphics Suite. Products such as these are sure to find a place in the booming home-care market, as well as in hospitals and the like.

Figure 2: The Wind River folks have a great bedside manner.

Figure 3: Apparently, I’m a somewhat overweight woman with higher than normal blood pressure. Well, that’s good to know.

 

Moving on – Let’s look at the world of intelligent displays.

Emerson Networks had a great demonstration of facial recognition applications for intelligent kiosks. I believe this kiosk was running the KR8-315, a fanless embedded computer based on the Atom E640 processor running at 1.0 GHz with 1GB DDR2 and a 64GB Solid State Drive.

Figure 4: Note the “Viewer Count” and “Majority Gender” in the bottom part of the display panel. The next figure shows how these numbers are derived via facial recognition technology.

 

Figure 5: Facial recognition is used to determine “Viewer Count” and “Majority Gender.” That is Connie Schultejans from Emerson in the background.

 

Changing direction – Let’s now move to the automotive market.

Mentor Graphics is a member of the GENIVI alliance , a non-profit industry alliance for the adoption of an In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) reference platform. After the recent relationship cool-off with mobile phone giant Nokia, Intel has repositioned (or re-emphasized) it MeeGo operating system platform within GENIVI. (see, “ATOM Leader Leaves Intel”)

In addition to MeeGo, Mentor also offers a complete Android-platform development environment. All of these operating systems, including Mentor’s Embedded Linux, run on Atom processors – among others. A tool suite known as Inflexion is used to create the impressive user interfaces (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Supporting the GENINI In-Vehicle Infotainment market, Mentor Graphics offers user interface development tools that operate on MeeGo, Android and Linux system running on Intel Atom processors.

Pictures from Intel Developers Forum (IDF) 2011

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Although I was only able to attend the opening day at IDF 2011, my pictures tell it all.

Lower Consumer Power Trend Masks Manufacturing Component

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Does a drop in residential power usage – thanks in part to lower power semiconductor devices – really mean that the world is becoming energy efficient or does it hide manufacturing energy costs?

 A recent report from the Electric Power Research Institute  – a nonprofit group funded by the utility industry – concluded that the growth rate for residential power would decline over the next 10 years by about 0.5 percent a year.

Many factors contribute to this decline, including the use of more efficient lighting, energy usage improvements in newer and older homes, and cost conscious consumers in a sagging economy. But one factor, which will come as no surprise to the semiconductor industry, is the continuing evolution of lower power fixed and mobile electronic devices.

Consumer electronic devices consumer less power, but at what cost?

But does the power savings of new semiconductor devices really translate to a system-wide decrease in energy consumption? To answer that question, one would need to know the total power (energy) costs that go into manufacturing all of these electronic devices. With new semiconductor foundries costing billions and billions of dollars, these manufacturing costs are staggering. If not for the sheer volume of devices sold, no consumer would be able to afford a mobile device of any kind.

But including the manufacturing cost of each device would still not be enough to determine the total power consumption. Design costs would also be needed. Most of today’s designs involve teams spread all over the world, meaning that communication costs must be included, e.g., office lighting, and desktop-server-network power requirements.

Would the decline in residential power usage cited by the EPRI report really be enough to offset the design and manufacturing power costs for today’s “low-power” devices? As we continue to move toward a global community of consumers, this is the question that should be addressed to gain a true evaluation of energy trends.

Engineering – The Lost Profession

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

I just finished reading “The Lost Symbol,” by Dan Brown. It was about the misunderstood meaning and purpose of the Masonic Order. A similar story could be written about the engineering profession.

The ring is given in a ceremony developed with the assistance of Rudyard Kipling and known as "The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer."

Let me share with you two recent activities that emphasis the problems facing engineering – at least in the US. The first one comes from a Portland State University panel event with Intel’s CEO Paul Otellini and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Here is a portion of that discussion, reported by Mike Rogoway of the Oregonian:

 

 “Panelists broadly agreed Wednesday that engineering has gotten a bad rap in the U.S., lamenting with laughs that that there aren’t many TV shows that glorify the job. And they said that teaching methods need to improve, noting that large numbers of students transfer out of engineering programs.

PSU engineering dean Renjeng Su sounded a cautionary note on the forum’s goal Wednesday, warning that teaching 10,000 new engineering grads to truly innovate costs more than simply certifying that they’ve taken classes or passed a test.

Randy L. Rasmussen/The OregonianPanelists spoke to an audience of Portland business and civic leaders at Wednesday’s forum in Portland State University’s Hoffman Hall.

“I don’t think that can be done cheaply,” Su said. “There is an intense cost to be worked out.”

For his part, Otellini said cost is less of an issue than attracting and retaining engineering students. Foreign students are filling seats in domestic engineering programs, he said, because American students aren’t pursuing them.

“We have plenty of spots,” he said. “We just need to get more of the population into those spots.”

 

The second relevant data point in this quandry facing the engineering profession came from a conversation that I had earlier this summer with Terry Bristol, President of the Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy. Terry, a long time advocate for the engineering profession, called my attention to this article: “Public Understanding of Engineering: Consequences and Solutions.”  The gist of this story is that the decline of the number of engineering and technology graduates throughout the last decade must be addressed to avoid serious problems in the future. This paper called for specific changes in the way engineering is taught, as well as a serious campaign to improve public awareness.

The recent PSU talks and the paper on public understanding caused me to reconsider the plight of the engineering profession. Why have engineers lost their respect and appreciation in the public eye? The marvel of semiconductor technology created by engineers at ever decreasing cost to the consumer seems to have done our profession more harm then good.

Perhaps a massive public relations effort is needed to remind the average American that without engineering, science is of little worth. It is time for all of us to rediscover the lost “importance” of the least appreciated profession in the US.