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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Scratching the Surface

Microsoft has followed the Apple lead and done some really neat software for the user interface (for once). The Surface is a table PC (which has been around in places like Bristol's Watershed for years) but now adds a touch screen software for that surface (hence the name).
One demo shows the use with a phone (above), linking automatically via Bluetooth when placed on the table and easily transferring pictures to and from the phone. Brilliant!
The other shows a group working on the same set of photos, moving and manipulating them by hand (below).
The main thing I would worry about is the lifetime of the touchscreen and the initial costs - for a lot of the corporate applications (with the high price) a vertical touchscreen seems better, and we have those already. The phone example, which needs a table, is more suited to the home or casual environment and I'm not sure this wil be priced for that market.

A PC on a USB stick

Could you fit a PC into a USB stick? Israeli startup Yoggie Security Systems has done that, creating a 500MHz Linux computer in your pocket.
The Yoggie Pico uses a 520MHz processor from Marvell (the former StrongArm PA processor line from Intel) and it runs the full Linux6.2 operating system.
This allows Yoggie to provide 13 security applications such as anti-virus, firewall and anti-phishing in a USB2.0 stick to protect notebook PCs. All the network traffic runs from the modem or wireless LAN through the stick controlled by a separate memory engine in the notebook, not the central processor.
“The bottleneck is always the network and not the PCI bus or the USB, and that’s why there is no degradation in performance,” said Shlomo Toubol, founder and chief executive of Yoggie. The signatures and rules are updated automatically by the stick every five minutes.
The operating system is kept secure in a protected 128Mbyte flash memory chip and loaded into another 128Mbyte flash to execute to prevent hacking. It runs with128Mbytes of DRAM memory.
Three of the applications have been bought in, including the anti-virus with regular virus signature updates, while the others have been developed in house or are open source, says Toubol.
The company is about to appoint distributors in the UK for both consumer and enterprise applications. For companies, the USB stick can also be used to prevent access to Websites and to prevent the PC being used without the stick, but there is password protection so the PC could be used in an emergency.
The potential however is for this to be a very compact portable PC that just needs to be plugged into a screen, keyboard and network connection, and Yoggie is looking at new applications.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Young Engineer of the Year deadline approaches

The deadline for the 2007 Young Engineer for Britain entries is approaching on May 31st.
This comes hot on the heels of the news that two previous year’s winners went on last week to scoop top prizes amounting to $19,500 at the Intel sponsored International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Alberquerque, New Mexico. Andrew Nowell (19) from Nottingham and David Badger from Sheffield won the right to travel to America as part of their prizes from the 2006 Young Engineer for Britain competition last September.
The Young Engineer for Britain has a £2,000 top prize and the opportunity to emulate Andrew and David’s success in America. Eleven regional judging events begin in Belfast on 12 June and finishes at the University of Sunderland on 17 July (see below) and each regional event itself offers a range of valuable prizes, including a new award from REKTN (Resource Efficiency Knowledge Transfer Network) for the project doing the most to sustain energy. The regional finals also provide the opportunity to qualify for the National Final, which takes place at the Annual Celebration of Engineering at the Old Royal Navy College in Greenwich on 17 September.
There are four awards categories in the competition and two eligible age
groups: 12 -16 and 16 -19. The awards categories are design and innovation; product development and marketability; engineering craftsmanship and finish; integration and application of electronics.
Regional winners in each of these categories can win £150, whilst national winners can win £800. Overall regional winners receive £200 and automatically qualify for the national final and there are a number of wild cards at the discretion of the panel judges, who are drawn from industry and who specialise in one or more of the judging criteria. All cash awards are shared between students and their schools.
Schools have been able to enter the 2007 competition on line at the Young Engineers’ web site

Regional events:

Date - Region - Location
12/06/07 - Northern Ireland - Odyssey Centre, Belfast
21/06/07 - North West - Salford University
22/06/07 - Scotland - Crowne Plaza Hotel, Glasgow
28/06/07 - South East and London - Surrey University, Guilford
02/07/07 - South West - FAA Museum, Yeovilton
03/07/07 - East - Anglia University, Chelmsford
05/07/07 - East Midlands - Nottingham Trent University
06/07/07 - West Midlands - Thinktank at Millenium Point
10/07/07 - Yorks and Humberside - Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield
16/07/07 - Wales - Millenium Stadium, Cardiff
17/07/07 - North East - University of Sunderland

"There is still time to enter this major competition, which sets out to identify the nation’s top young engineering entrepreneurs. Much has been said about the importance of engineering to the future of the country and by entering this competition, students can make a vital start on this path,” said Young Engineers’ Project Manager, Joanne Phillips.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Qualcomm looks to put a micro display into Bluetooth headset

Communications chip maker QUALCOMM has teamed up with a Taiwanese Bluetooth headset maker to integrate Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) displays into the next generation of Ubixon's stereo headsets.
The reflective displays, based on Interferometric Modulation (IMOD) technology, require no backlighting and can be viewed in bright sunlight and in a wide range of environments and are lower power than other display technologies, claims Qualcomm.
Details are very sketchy, but this sounds like a display attached to the earpiece, forming the User Interface (and these direct displays work better close to the eye).
The problem is then getting all that display data over the Bluetooth link, although with more memory in the earpiece it could just send updates. Great for a more static display, which would use less power and not be so sensitive to switching speed.
This also ties in well with Qualcomm's SnapDragon chip to add more computing to phones and consumer devices.
MEMS uses semiconductor-like and thin-film manufacturing processes to produce tiny and highly reliable mechanical devices for the displays with micron resolution.
"We are excited to work with Ubixon toward the common goal of delivering innovative solutions to end users," said Dr John Batey, vice president and general manager of QUALCOMM MEMS Technologies. "With the delivery of the industry's first direct view MEMS displays, we are providing technology that enables mobile devices to be used in more environments and for more hours per charge, thereby enhancing consumers' user experience."
More on the technology.
Ubixon started with headsets but is an emerging developer of ubiquitous portable consumer devices. Headquartered in Seoul, its parent company Uclick is a South Korea-based financial Internet portal and technology company.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

V is for Venture Capital

A wonderful pastiche of the 'V is for Vendetta' and 'The Matrix' film genre from MBA students at UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School in the US who have obviously talked to the more aggressive, grasping VC funds!
Includes classic lines like - "Remember - use 5 times EBITDA" and other sad phrases but highlights the challenge of dealing with people who are much more experienced with money!

Broadcom plays off ARM and MIPS

Broadcom is licensing processor cores from the two arch competitors ARM and MIPS Technologies.
It is licensing the ARM Cortex-M3 for wireless designs and the MIPS 74K announce today for designs over 1GHz such as digital TV, set-top boxes, next generation DVD players/recorders, broadband access, PON, residential gateways and VoIP. Broadcom was the first to license the 74K core in January as an early access customer.
“The rapid convergence of digital devices and the emergence of new consumer markets, including IPTV, HD DVD, Blu-ray Disc and 802.11n, are driving the demand for superior performance, lower system costs and low power consumption,” said Jack Browne, vice president of marketing at MIPS Technologies.
However this is a complex beast with a 17-stage pipeline employing a combination of out-of-order dispatch and asymmetric dual-issue. This gives the higher frequency and higher performance with lower area and power, with 1.7sq mm core area and 0.76 mW/MHz in TMSC's general purpose 65nm process.
Broadcom is using the ARM M3 in a multiple-use licensing agreement for wireless LAN (802.11g,b and n,presumably) and Bluetooth. The key is the Thumb2 instruction set that combines both 16bit and 32bit instructions to keep code size down.
“The superior code density of the ARM Cortex-M3 processor enables a reduced memory footprint while delivering significant performance advantages over existing designs,” said Robert Rango, Group Vice President and General Manager of Broadcom’s Wireless Connectivity Group.
“Broadcom has long been an innovator in the wireless space, creating groundbreaking solutions enabling the delivery of innovative content in the home, office and on-the-move,” said Graham Budd, executive vice president and general manager of the Processor Division at ARM. “By combining Broadcom’s industry-leading wireless expertise, with the ARM Cortex-M3 processor, Broadcom has the building blocks for a compelling solution, tailored to the specific demands and rigors of the evolving consumer electronics market.”

Monday, May 21, 2007

Motorola mops up Modulus

Late last week saw Motorola continuing to strengthen its position in video by acquiring Modulus Video (I don't really think it's a merger, given the relative sizes of the companies).
These guys have been developing great video compression algorithms and systems purely focussed on H.264/AVC for IPTV, cable, broadcast and satellite systems, such as the ME2000 SD/HD encoder above, and has been working with Motorola for the last two years anyway.
This now combines Broadbus, Kreatel, Tut Systems and Netopia for an integrated, end-to-end video delivery system for multiple network architectures.
Great for the US, which is where it seems all the video attention is - we now need to see whether they will start taking Europe a bit more seriously, particularly as IPTV is being driven from here (which is why Kreatel was so important!)
As ever it will be a potential problem for existing Modulus partners such as Sencore, who supplied decoders to them, and other customers, although they were never big on saying who those customers might be.

More of a worry would be Mark Magee, the VP Technology & Chief Architect and Co-Founder, who has avoided Motorola before. He worked at Compression Labs Inc, which was acquired by Motorola / General Instrument, and was before co-founding Modulus Video, he was VP of Engineering for DiviCom (acquired by Harmonic). There he was the architect of the DiviCom MPEG-2 encoder and multiplexer and helped define and develop other DiviCom core products, leading a team of 180 engineers across three R&D centres: this is a man who has done the big teams and the startups and should not need to work now - keeping his expertise will be an interesting challenge for Motorola.

But hey: "Our team will benefit from Motorola's rich heritage and leadership of video delivery expertise," said Bob Wilson, Chairman and CEO of Modulus Video. "Modulus Video will bring to Motorola a software-centric platform that ensures flexibility, reduced cost and fast development time."
"Motorola is committed to offering an integrated, end-to-end video portfolio designed to meet the current and next-generation requirements of operators," said Dan Moloney, President, Home and Networks Mobility business at Motorola. "As consumers demand more high definition video and interactive services, the need for advanced compression technology is increasingly important. As part of its advanced real-time video encoding products, Modulus Video has a powerful architecture and product development framework that is well suited for continued technological advancement."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Electric Cloud tackles variants of embedded software

US startup Electric Cloud is looking to Europe for its international expansion to tackle the complexity of embedded software.
With different versions for different products, different countries and different operators, companies like Nokia can have up to 3000 different versions of the software for their phones. This is all constantly being updated and needs to be managed to make sure they all operate correctly and are put into the right phones.
The company has developed technology for handling all these different variants and their updates, which can be daily. The company is focussing on silicon chip and equipment suppliers in the mobile phone arena.
The ElectricCommander tool manages the software builds, while the ElectricAccelerator uses patented technology to accelerates the builds by spreading them across multiple computers in the network, cutting build times from hours to minutes and saving significant time with thousands of builds. The ElectricInsight tool provides visibility into the builds by mining the information produced by ElectricAccelerator to provide an easy-to-understand, graphical representation of the build structure for performance analysis and optimisation.
Companies such as Agilent Technologies, Force 10, Intuit, Kyocera, LG, LSI Logic, Mercury Computer Systems, Motorola, Qualcomm, and Samsung already use the tools in the US and the company has set up its European headquarters in Oxford, UK and has appointed Andrew Patterson its European business director.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

IBM's airgap nanotechnology - video

IBM has developed a technique for the ‘self assembly’ of air gaps around nano-scale wires, using them to act as the dielectric to speed up performance.
Researchers at IBM’s Almaden Research Centre in California and the T.J. Watson Research Centre in New York state used a mix of compounds that is poured onto a silicon wafer with the wired chip patterns, then baked. The compounds self assemble to create uniform holes 20nm in diameter around the wires, creating a vacuum dielectric.
"This is the first time anyone has proven the ability to synthesize mass quantities of these self-assembled polymers and integrate them into an existing manufacturing process with great yield results," said Dan Edelstein, IBM Fellow and chief scientist of the self-assembly airgap project. "By moving self assembly from the lab to the fab, we are able to make chips that are smaller, faster and consume less power than existing materials and design architectures allow."
Test chips use 15 percent less energy or run 35% faster, and the technique is expected to be used in the POWER server chips in 2009.
See more on IBM and HP nanotechnology here.

The HD fridge arrives

I suppose it was inevitable, but the first refrigerator with High Definition TV has finally arrived.
Announced in November but launched yesterday in the US by LG of Korea, the $4,000 fridge integrates LG's fifth-generation ATSC-QAM-NTSC digital television tuner to pick up terrestrial or cable HD. The only problem is, it displays it on a 15-inch LCD screen.
Whether people will pay the premium for HD on a small screen fridge is debatable, although there are always the 'bleeding edge' consumers.I guess the absence of any other competing fridges, even with a seven month lag between announcing and shipping, says something about the expected demand.
The unit has a DVD connection on top of the unit as well as a four-inch Weather & Info Centre LCD display that delivers personalized weather forecasts based on a consumer's geographic area, along with the forecast for four surrounding cities, via a wireless pager network. I can see this being a reason for a display, but
a) it is separate (HD might make a difference here) and
b) you can get a cheaper fridge with this on anyway
And harking back to the first 'killer app' for the home computer, storing recipes, the LG Recipe Bank has 100 pre-loaded recipes from the Culinary Institute of America.
There's also a digital photo album, so you can see your kids in HD, uploaded via a USB port (the pictures,not the kids)and date/time clock, calendar with anniversary alarm and more. (I'm expecting a wireless sync with Outlook - that would be more useful!)
"As an appliance industry leader in digital convergence, LG Electronics is constantly seeking out ways in which we can create innovative, stylish and functional products," said John Herrington, president of LG Electronics USA, Digital Appliances. "LG is taking this innovation one step further with the introduction of our HDTV Refrigerator by incorporating additional features that further enhance the user experience, from LG's industry-leading digital TV tuner to the Weather & Info Center for weather forecasts, uploadable photo album and recipe bank."
And of course it has an ice generator!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

RFID to blockout DVDs?

NXP Semiconductor and Kestrel Wireless have teamed up to add RFID tags to consumer equipment, including DVDs, to prevent theft, in a very interesting story.
The key is that the RFID chips activate the equipment at the point of sale, so stealing them is useless. And it fits nicely into the existing point of sale infrastructure - so far, so good. Now this I can understand for an MP3 player, falt screen TV, even a electronic toothbrush, but how on earth does an RFID tag disable or enable a DVD, which is passive?
It turns out there is another factor floating around here - an electro-optic film has to be added to the DVD, and this is activated by the RFID tag. Now, there are some distinct issues here, not least the power required to activate the film quickly and effectively, which is not possible through existing point of sale RFID terminals. An then there is the cost of adding the film to the DVD (both in itself and the manufacturing process) which will be non-trivial - this is not just a piece of plastic on top of the disk. And what about reliability - will the film slowly darken over time?
I suspect there's a long way to go on this!

Recycling your FPGA!

Altera has launched its FPGAs into the higher volume market for PCI Express (PCIe), Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) and Serial RapidIO (SRIO) by 'recycling' its existing higher performance parts.
The 2.5Gbit/s ArriaGX parts are based on the same die as the existing 6.25Gbit/s StratixII GX parts, but run at a lower speed (reducing the test and support costs) and use lower cost packaging. This has significantly reduced the cost of the parts, putting it just 20% more expensive than the low cost Cyclone 3 family.
The five members of the family provide up to 12 full-duplex transceiver channels and start at $50 for the 50,000 logic element (LE) part. The family ranges from 21,580 to 90,220 logic elements, up to 4.5 Mbits of embedded memory and up to 176 multipliers, and is built on TSMC’s established 90-nm process.
The parts are included in the latest release of the Quartus II design tool, released today, and because these are based on existing die, start shipping in volume next month.
“What differentiates Arria GX devices from other offerings in the market is not one particular element but a combination of powerful attributes,” said Jordan Plofsky, Altera’s senior vice president of marketing. “Primarily, customers are getting a very reliable product—proven transceiver technology built on a proven process. Next, the price is unparalleled for such a comprehensive product. Finally, we designed it to maintain the best levels of signal integrity—each member of this family is available in flip-chip packages. These are the key elements our customers told us were most important for the applications we are targeting.”