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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Toumaz to start medical trials of digital plaster

Abingdon-based chip designer Toumaz Technology is to start medical trials of its ultra low power, disposable wireless chip in a matter of days.
The Sensium chip (yes, they call it a platform) is a 4 x 4mm chip with an 8051 controller and RF made on Infineon's 130nm RF CMOS process. The key is Toumaz's patented Advanced Mixed Signal (AMx) design technology that provides an ultra low power wireless link - the link operates at 1.0 V and takes just 2.5nW (yes, nanoWatts) with one reading per day. This allows smaller, thinner batteries to be used to create the 'digital plaster' - a standard 2400mAh AA battery would last 114 years at this rate!
This is used to connect the mobile individual via any existing network to a healthcare provider - from the hardware (including body-worn and base station Sensiums) and wireless link protocols to the operating system. By delivering not just the sensors but the rest of the system, Toumaz is enabling a new generation of low-cost, disposable, personalised healthcare and lifestyle solutions.
These digital plasters can continuously monitor multiple key physiological parameters, linking in real-time to standard PDAs, cellphones and USB-enabled computers. The Sensium collects, processes and extracts the key features of the data and intelligently reports to a base station Sensium via an ultra low-power, short-range radio telemetry link, using Toumaz's power optimized Nano-power Sensor Protocol operating system. From there, the data can be further filtered and processed by application software and integrated into existing medical information systems, such as those employing the worldwide HL7 standard, to provide a complete end-to-end system and the foundation for a total patient care package.
This is the first in a family of ultra-low power sensor interface systems currently being developed by Toumaz for healthcare markets.
"Toumaz has succeeded in pulling together the key core competences of ultra-low power wireless and ultra-low power signal processing first developed at Imperial College and integrating these onto its completely unique system for the acquisition of data from a mobile individual," said Co-Founder and Chairman, Professor Chris Toumazou (pictured is co-founder and COO Keith Errey). "The landmark we are celebrating today represents the realisation of a whole solution to ultra-low power wireless body monitoring, an achievement of which everyone involved is extremely proud."

Monday, February 26, 2007

IBM pushes existing technology down to 22nm

How low can you go?

An article on EETimes by Mark LaPedus sees IBM using existing immersion lithography down to 22nm, a lot further than previously thought, rather than moving to Extreme UltraViolet (EUV) technology.
It confirms that IBM will have 45nm by the end of the year, using 193nm immersion technology where liquid is used around the lens of the equipment to provide better focussing and so make chips with smaller details (a numerical aperture of 1.2).
The article has IBM seeing 22nm in 2011 still using immersion technology, and that EUV will not be ready even by then. IBM leads with a number of customers, although Intel is using a 'dry' technology for its 45nm chips.
Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing has also extended its joint development effort with IBM to include 32nm CMOS process node work, reports Electronics Weekly which implies that the Common Platform Alliance with third member Samsung will also be moving to 32nm.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

3GSM: It's the interface, stupid - part III

The role of the mobile phone interface is changing. The Apple iPhone showed how important it was (see below for parts I and II), and now the chips are coming out to make it a reality.

So 3D is becoming a key part of handset design. As a result, the phones of the next few years will look very different to the flat, 2D menus-driven phones we have today.

Several vendors have launched 3D cores for mobiles, both at the high end for gaming but also through the feature phones for the User Interface (UI).

This move is the key, says Tony King-Smith, VP marketing at Imagination Technology, which supplies the MBX and MBXlite cores for the OMAP2 from Texas Instruments and the SGX core for the OMAP3. This is driving more software developers to use 3D in all sorts of different ways. This only becomes compelling when the technology moves down into the feature phones, he says, and then the ecosystem of software provides is vital.

This opens up the possibility of downloading different UIs to a phone depending on the operator look-and-feel or the user preference. NetDimension are using it to provide 3D mapping of building, both inside and out, linked to low cost navigation systems using both satellites and the cell sites. This can even be tied up with products, to take you straight to the handbag section of a store, for example, says Tetsu Hayasi, CEO of NetDimension and demonstrating the software with Imagination (left). “The experience is pretty complete, very smooth, and this navigation with fine grain textures is something the handset vendors are very, very keen to do over the next few years,” said King-Smith.

ARM and AMD are battling it out for control of this market.

AMD is licensing the 3D technology from its acquisition of ATI technologies to go into handsets. STMicroelectronics is the first to license the technology from AMD, including 2D, 3D and vector graphics core engines, as well as related software compliant with OpenGL ES 2.0 and OpenVG 1.0 standards, for its Nomadik applications processor family.

“Our extensive benchmarking research found that AMD delivers the highest quality graphics technology for handheld user interfaces and sophisticated applications such as GPS,” said Jyrki Hannikainen, general manager of ST's Application Processor Division. “Combining AMD’s leading graphics core with the proven strengths of our Nomadik leading-edge multimedia platform will not only drive interest with application developers, but will help feed the consumer appetite for visually rich 3D applications and multimedia.”

ARM’s latest Mali55 core also aims for this higher volume market, measuring under 1.4mm2 on a 90nm generic process, and providing full scene anti-aliasing up to 16x, to turn a quarterVGA screen into a high-cost VGA system for UI and gaming. “Mobile multimedia phones today rival the personal computers of ten years ago. Now, console-quality 3D graphics are transforming the mobile handset into a compelling gaming platform, and recent innovations are redefining the very way we interact with the UI,” said Ian Drew, vice president of Segment Marketing at ARM. “With the integration of the Mali processors into the ARM portfolio, we can now offer comprehensive 2D and 3D graphics solutions for a wide range of handsets – from low-cost phones to high-end mobile multimedia devices – and accelerate time-to-market.”

3GSM: HSPA+ arrives

The cellular broadband and industry is starting work on implementing a new standard that will provide download speeds up to 28Mbit/s to 3G mobile phones in 2008, more than the speed to most European households. While this could significantly change the balance between wired and wireless broadband, there are key question on what this means for next generation '4G' wireless.
The HSPA+ standard goes beyond the existing HSDPA and HSUPA speeds, and both Qualcomm and Icera are planning to support it. Bristol-based Icera's next chip, due later this year, will be upgradeable to HSPA+ in software, said Nigel Toon, VP Marketing.
Similarly Qualcomm is supporting and pushing the standard, which is part of the 3GPP Release 7, as wll as the next generation Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology. "We are committed to mobile broadband with HSPA+ and then to LTE," said Behrooz Abdi, general manager of Qualcomm CDMA Technologies. It is working with companies such as Cingular in the US for HSPA+ services next year.
"HSPA+ could be an upgrade deployment path for operators as it adds the MIMO diversity and higher speed, particularly in femtocells," said Rupert Baines, VP marketing for basestation chip maker picoChip. "But LTE has stopped being an evolution and it’s now a 4G network, it's totally different."
HSPA+ moves to multiple antennas for transmit and receive, and uses 64QAM coding down and 16QAM for the uplink instead of QPSK coding.

3GSM: TI looks at low power DDR2 for next generation mobile chip

Texas Instruments is finalising the architecture of its next generation chip family for mobile phones which is expected to be called OMAP4.
"Memory bandwidth is the issue," says Rick Wietfeldt, chief technical officer of the handset division at TI, so there are discussion on supporting the LP-DDR2 low power memory interface currently being developed by JEDEC with a 533MHz 32bit wide interface.
The current generation, OMAP3430 and 3420, use TI’s Imaging Video Accelerator (IVA2) to handle high definition TV encoding and decoding. From external suppliers, the chips use the ARM Cortex A8 processor core and are the first to use the SGX 3D core from Imagination Technologies and an interconnect from Sonics.

Friday, February 09, 2007

3GSM: Silicon Labs pulls out of mobile phone business

US chip maker Silicon Laboratories is pulling out of the phone chip business to concentrate on other areas such as FM chips and its traditional microcontroller business.
NXP Semiconductor will buy the Aero transceiver, AeroFONE single-chip phone and power amplifier product lines, for $285 million in cash.
“This transaction transfers a one of a kind business in the mobile handset market to NXP, a company with the necessary scale and resources to effectively compete long-term,” said Necip Sayiner, president and chief executive officer of Silicon Labs. “Strategically, this will enable us to focus on the most profitable and highest growth segment of our business, our core mixed-signal products."
My interpretation of this is the move by TI and Infineon into the low cost, single chip phone market for China and India, which will drive prices down, and that Silicon Labs hasn't managed to get a good enough foothold in there. So good for them. What I worry about is NXP trying to do the same, and it will have to compete on price.So it'll be a bloodbath, but the wider industry will benefit from lower cost silicon.

3GSM: CSR launches voice over IP chip for mobiles

Ahead of the 3GSM show next week, Cambridge Silicon Radio has launched a chip that combines WiFi and Bluetooth, but makes sure that both work at the same time efficiently. This is important as both operate in the 2.4GHz band, and other coexistence schemes take lots more power.
It means CSR is now competing with Broadcom and TI, but as it already has over 50% of the Bluetooth handset market when competing against them, that's not too much of a problem.
The trick with UniVox Mobile is there are dedicated hardware lines between the Unifi WiFi chip and the Bluetooth chip, controlling where the two are operating. The two are synchronised in the time domain so they don't clash, and the WiFi notifies the Bluetooth where the Wifi is operating so that the Bluetooth chip can hop around it in the frequency domain.
This is good stuff. The chips also go to sleep between packets to keep the power down, giving standby times for dual mode phones with standard 860mAh batteries of up to 10 days and talk time of 8 hours, which is comparable to existing mobiles.
The UniVox Mobile reference design contains all the additional hardware and software to turn a mobile handset into a wirelessly enabled handset that can take and make Voice over WiFi calls, and CSR is working with two handset makers to do this already. It points to its experience with integrating the software for Bluetooth in minimising the risks.
This chip also includes the G.711 codecs and other software that will make VOIP calls of decent quality (equivalent to wireline, says CSR) rather than the poor codecs in current handsets. That will certainly help to drive the takeup of dual mode phones.
"It’s clear that consumers like the concept of the dual mode phone, however until now it has proved tricky to deliver the power consumption and voice quality that the end customer requires," said Raj Gawera, Marketing Manager for the WiFi Strategic Business Unit at CSR. "With these issues overcome, we believe that dual mode phones present a tremendous opportunity for manufacturers. UniVox Mobile has been designed from the bottom up using power saving and coexistence technologies that we have developed specifically to ensure a smooth user experience.“

Internet TV could jam the Web

A report on Advanced TV highlights the issue of Internet TV providers such as YouTube and Joost offering commercial TV services over the Web, as as highlighted here in September when Amino looked at this new model (there's video of Bob Giddy getting excited about it.
Vincent Dureau, Google's head of TV technology, said the Internet was not designed for TV. "The Web infrastructure, and even Google's (infrastructure) doesn't scale. It's not going to offer the quality of service that consumers expect," he said.
Google instead offered to work together with cable operators to combine its technology for searching for video and TV footage and its tailored advertising with the cable networks' high-quality TV delivery. Sounds familiar........

Monday, February 05, 2007

Dual core PA Semi chip for 3U card

Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing is using a dual core, low power PowerPC developed by chip startup P.A. Semiconductor for a high performance processing card that fits into the small 3U form factor.
The VPX3-125 is the company's first 3U card for the VPX format that supports high speed switching and uses the P.A. Semi PWRficient PA6T-1682M. The 1.5GHz chip is a low-power, fully compliant Power Architecture Platform processor with a power rating from 5W to 15W, and a maximum power of 25W with both cores running at fullspeed. This allows more performance in the smaller form factor and backwards compatibiity with existing software (and will give Freescale a run for its money!).
“3U VPX delivers true high performance small form-factor processing,” said Lynn Patterson , Vice President and General Manager of Curtiss Wright’s Modular Solutions group. “The PA Semi -1682 PowerPC processor is ideal for driving new platforms, such as the VPX3-125 SBC, with support for high-speed serial switched interconnects such as PCI Express and 10Gigabit Ethernet with outstanding performance-per-Watt."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

New M3W multimedia programming interface for MPEG-4

To make it easier to develop multimedia applications, the MPEG standards group has developed a new applications programming interface (API) that could be used middleware - the software that sits between the video chip and the applications.

It's a good idea and definitely useful but commercial reality means it may struggle.

M3W (ISO/IEC 23004 MPEG-E) is the standardization of an Application Programming Interface (API) for Multimedia Middleware (M3W) allowing application software to execute multimedia functions with a minimum knowledge of the inner workings of the multimedia middleware.
It is aimed at M3W embedded devices in entertainment, mobile communications,broadcast and IP set top boxes and gaming systems.
It supports extra features like Fault Tolerance, Resource and Terminal management. These enable run-time control, updating, upgrading and/or extension of the middleware, giving it much more flexibility and upgradeability. It has a generic infrastructure that is easily tailored and open, with an extendible (both for the functional and non-functional parts) architecture and component model.
M3W consists of eight parts.
Architecture, Multimedia API, Component Model and Resource and Quality Management have all reached the final stage of development, and the next three parts (Component Download, Fault Management and Integrity Management) will reach the final stage at the 80th MPEG meeting in April. In addition, reference software, which will be made available to support the developed technologies, will be Part 8.

The problem is that pretty much all the middleware being used is proprietary, because that is supported and developed. M3W could be used as the basis for an Open Source solution, but I think operators would be reluctant to use open source for this mission-critical part of the system. It is less likely that existing middleware vendors will use it, as they have a lot of legacy software and less incentive to open up their systems.

What is more likely is we will see new software vendors launching middleware based on M3W because it is so much easier to use and should be less expensive than the existing proprietary software. This will then encourage an ecosystem of applications to grow (and then the other vendors will jump on the bandwagon - think Linux in the embedded space), but unless there is a concerted effort to 'pump prime' the ecosystem and give it a boost, this will unfortunately to take several years.

New formats for MPEG-4 AVC

With digital TV rolling out across the world using the MPEG-4 AVC standard, you might think that the work has all been done. But the MPEG standards group has launched five new profiles for professional video equipment.
These have been developed jointly with the International Telecommunications Union's (ITU-T) Study Group 16, (as AVC is also the ITU's H.264 standard) and with the Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).
These profiles will serve applications in the professional domain with enhanced compression capabilities for colour sampling using the full range 4:4:4 (used by Blu Ray and HD DVD systems)and bit depth dynamic ranges up to 14 bits per sample (in contrast with typical consumer-oriented video applications that use only 4:2:0 color sampling and 8 bits of dynamic range).
Four of the new profiles support "intra-only" applications with demands for extreme low-latency operation, simple editing, and random-access functionality.
Applications for the new profiles include studio camcorders, content creation and contribution, professional digital video recording and editing systems, studio production and post production systems, digital cinema / large screen digital imagery systems, and compression for high fidelity display systems.

Friday, February 02, 2007

RapidIO test lab goes independent

Tundra Semiconductor has transferred its RapidIO interoperability test lab to an independent third party, Fabric Embedded Tools (FET). This will help build the ecosystem to silicon and systems for the RapidIO high speed interconnect with more vendors demonstrating interoperability through the lab. Companies such as Freescale and Texas Instruments already have RapidIO interfaces on their chips and having the test centre independent of a competing chip company will help greatly.

The RIOLAB was established by Tundra in February 2006 for commercial semiconductor vendors, FPGA and ASIC developers, and OEMs, to validate interoperability of their products and test for specification compliance. The transfer of RIOLAB to FET marks the early achievement of a significant RIOLAB milestone - to transition the lab within 12 to 18 months of operation to a qualified independent third-party vendor within the ecosystem.

As part of the transition, RIOLAB will relocate to a new facility in Ottawa and will resume full operations by the end of February 2007.

"In starting RIOLAB, Tundra again demonstrated RapidIO leadership, and filled an important need to have an independent test facility focused on device interoperability and specification compliance within the RapidIO ecosystem," said Tom Cox, executive director of the RapidIO Trade Association. "With FET, an expert in the embedded test marketplace, RIOLAB will be well-equipped to continue providing state-of-the-art testing as RapidIO technology continues to be embraced as the standard in a wide range of embedded markets."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Low cost design kit for flexible electronic paper

French electronic flexible paper display maker Nemoptic has launched a low cost prototyping set for its BiNem Display.
This allows system integrators to test the performance of Nemoptic's HVGA (320x480) bistable nematic Liquid Crystal Display technology and to develop applications for consumer and professional products using an e-paper display, inexpensively.
Potential applications include electronic shelf labels (ESL), Point-Of-Sale displays, e-books, e-newspapers, Ultra-Mobile PCs, e-dictionaries, industrial sensors, and mobile phones.
"Nemoptic's BiNem Display HVGA prototyping kit enables electronic engineers to get a real test drive of our technology on all kinds of e-paper display applications, existing and new," says Thierry Emeraud, VP Sales & Marketing at Nemoptic. "They will find it easy to create and show images on a BiNem display, since this prototyping kit can be used either in a stand alone mode or interfaced with their own development platforms. The kit's low price, one-eighth of the price of comparable LCD prototype kits, may also be an incentive for testing."

The EUR300 kit uses a 4.8 inch, mid-to-high resolution (120dpi) black and white display that is mounted directly on a driving electronics board, which makes the module a convenient one-piece. This dot-matrix zero power display offers the highest contrast ratio on the market (greater than 10 at 120dpi), excellent readability in reflective mode at all angles, as well as fast-refreshing speed. There is a hardware interface in the form of a flat cable and a software interface that can adapt to most existing processors.
Created in 1999, Nemoptic, headquartered near Paris, has raised more than 35 million Euros and operates a production unit in Sweden.

Wireless networking boom for 2007 as silicon design teams spin out

The latest figures from leading market researcher Future Horizons see boom times for Ultrawideband (UWB), Zigbee and WiMax networking chips over the next five years, as well as DAB digital radio and silicon for robotics. But the value of chips for DVD players will almost halve, being replaced by the growth in DVD recorders, and if you are designing RFID tags for anything other than shop applications, stop!

Design teams spin out

The other area that will grow will be spin outs of design teams. As companies follow a 'fab lite' strategy (see my NXP stories in November and the recent David Manners blog on this topic) that is really a fabless strategy, Malcolm Penn predicts we will see more and more of the silicon design teams spinning out of the big chip companies as there is no need for that vertical company structure any more. Which means startup support will be even more important as time goes on. There are some big implications here, for the way companies link together, communicate and even how they buy services, that will be a running theme through the next 12 to 18 months.

No worries for 2007 chip market

The latest forecast from leading market researchers Future Horizons is bullish about the coming year for the semiconductor industry.
Malcolm Penn has a great model, working down from the global macroeconomics to he specifics of the industry, right down to the silicon equipment and materials that are necessary to make the chips,and he makes a lot of sense.
He sees growth of 8% in the number of chips and 12% in the value of chips shipped. This is a good sign for the industry in one way, as it shows an increase in the average selling price, or ASP. This ASP had been falling, so although there were lots of chips shipping, there was less money around.
Now the downside is that these values are both less than the industry average. Good for returning to the average and avoiding the big ups and downs of the industry, but not good as it indicates we are on the way back down again after above-average growth last year. So much the same as last year.

Boom figures for 2006 chip sales

The Semiconductor Industry Association(SIA) reported that global sales of semiconductors reached a record $247.7bn in 2006, an increase of 8.9% from the
$227.5bn reported in 2005.

Worldwide sales in December were $21.7bn, up 9% on December 2005 (but down 3.6% on he previous month with all that manufacturing for Christmas).

"2006 was the 'Year of the Consumer' in the electronics industry," said SIA President George Scalise. "Sales growth was largely driven by popular consumer products such as cell phones, MP3 players, and HDTV sets."

Rights for robots? Not in my lifetime says leading researcher

One of the UK’s leading robotics researchers has dismissed a recent UK report that calls for robot rights (akin to human rights) to be investigated.
“Personally I think that’s absurd, not in principle but in the 20 to 25 year timeframe mentioned,” said Alan Winfield, Hewlett Packard professor of electronic engineering at the University of the West of England and head of the Bristol Robotics Lab, speaking at HP Labs in Bristol. “We won’t see robot rights in my lifetime but just possibly in the lifetime of our youngsters.”
Part of this is down to the development of artificial intelligence, which is not a factor of processing power, he says. “We already have tons of processing power. There are already computers that can simulate a similar number of neurons in the human brain but that doesn’t make them smart. We are decades if not longer from understanding the architecture of intelligence.”
The report on robot rights from Ipsos Mori was commissioned by the UK Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre and released in December.
However, he is part of a project called Walking with Robots that is taking the issue of robotics out to the public with 12 other research centres around the country. “The aim is to address the questions, to take these deep and important questions about intelligent robots out to the public over the next three years,” said Winfield.
Winfield is also working on a new project to look at the evolution of a robot society by copying behaviours in large numbers of small robots. “Here we are interested in doing evolutionary anthropology, trying to see if we can set up a society of robots where there is sufficient interaction to see if there are proto-cultural artefacts that emerge,” he said. “We have a very strong team of people including an evolutionary ecologist and an artist because one of the big problems is interpreting what we see.”
The group has been working on all sorts of things, including 'self powered' robots. These use a type of fuel cell to keep them going, only the fuel for the cell is dead flies (which decompose and produce a small amount of energy, but at least there is a continual source!)

Micropumps for fuel cells

A world away from the launch of Vista is a new micropump developed by ALPS Electric. Why is this important? Because these are vital for the next generation of fuel cells that will power laptops, digital cameras, even mobile phones and embedded equipment.
These are often based on methanol and need machines that circulate or control the fuel in the cell. And size here is vital for an embedded power source, hence the need for micropumps.
But designing pumps at this scale is hard – it needs structural design technologies such as fluid, structure and magnetic field analysis simulation as well as control technology. It uses a low-voltage electromagnetic drive system, which helps the control system.
The micropump is 6.0mm in diameter and 24.0mm in length, the microvalve measures 3.5mm in diameter and 10.3mm in length (excluding the nozzle).