Mike Noonen Discourses on The New Analog Mixed Signal Opportunity

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.

At DesignCon last month in the Santa Clara Convention Center, I met up with Mike Noonen, Co-Founder Silicon Catalyst. He shared some thoughts on major changes affecting the fabrication of analog mixed signal chips. Noonen knows about these things having paid his dues at GLOBALFOUNDRIES—most recently, then NXP and National Semiconductor—now Texas Instruments.  He presented “The New Analog Mixed Signal Opportunity,” at the EDACafe booth in which he painted a picture of disruption for traditional analog chip integrated device manufacturers (IDMs).  They are being compelled to join their fellow logic chip system chip makers aboard the logic CMOS treadmill of progressively smaller process geometries and larger wafer fabrication. (Click here to view video of the presentation.)

Noonen cited the example of the NXP EM773 low-cost 32-bit energy ARM Cortex-M0 based metering chip as an example of the new breed of design. The chip won the EDN Analog Product of the year in 2011.  It marked the evolution of the conventional analog products from simple, unintelligent bipolar products into a complex, analog plus connected, intelligent, digital system-on-chip standard CMOS integrated circuit. Furthermore, unlike conventional analog products that lagged standard logic CMOS by several process generations, today’s mixed signal devices are being implemented in 65nm processes and smaller geometries are coming on.  What driving this disruption?

Noonen credited the Internet-of-Things as contributing to the integration on analog and digital circuits on one chip. These devices now showing up in wearable performance monitors and personal medical monitors must be small, low cost, and able to operate for extended periods of time on battery power.  Curiously, this nascent market opportunity consists of moderate volumes of a wide variety of different end products but all built on a common platform. It comprises a microcontroller surrounded by sensors—accelerometers, gyros, magnetometer, and coming soon barometer—with the actual end product created by the software code running on the microcontroller.

Concurrent with this market driven trend is the competitiveness within the semiconductor industry. Texas Instruments a major analog mixed-signal chip supplier began fabricating its analog components on 300mm wafers late in 2010. In the process, the Dallas TX IDM gained a 30 percent cost advantage against competitors building devices on 200mm wafers according to market research firm Semico.  McKensey & Company reached the same conclusion in its 2011 analysis of the analog chip market. To remain competitive analog IDMs are faced with the choice of investing in 300mm manufacturing equipment—an undertaking or using existing abundant capacity from foundries.

Noonen referenced to market research firms iSupply’s and Gartner’s prediction of  foundry sales through 2016. Noonen said that the research firms were predicting that $16 billion of foundry industry revenue this year will be mostly 90nm processes or smaller. He observed that analog IDMs unwilling or unable to invest in 300mm equipment will opt to go fablite and buy 300mm wafers from foundries.   Furthermore, by 2016 a large percentage of this manufacturing capacity will be used for analog mixed signal production.

Noonen stated that there is a caveat to this analog mixed signal migration to smaller process geometries and 300mm wafer sizes.  Analog mixed signal devices cannot be as easily cloned as their digital cousin. Many if not all these devices require some configuration or calibration if not both. In addition, many analog mixed signal products occupy smaller die area and have smaller production runs than digital logic CMOS devices, that easily fill up thousands of 300mm wafers each producing 100,000 good die.  To address this constraint, analog mixed signal suppliers can use non-volatile memory for calibration, configuration, personalization as well as program storage and ROM code patching.

On a large wafer with a number of different analog mixed signal devices each with a different SKU, all the devices would be fabricated identically and at final test, the on-chip NVM would be loaded with unique configuration or calibration data for each device.  The NVM would also be programmed to create the unique product SKUs requested by customers. The advantage of building to order at final test is eliminating unused inventory—whatever is built is shipped. The overhead of accounting for this inventory is also eliminated.

The NVM memory used for this task has typically been eFuses or embedded flash (eflash).  At the larger process nodes, these solutions were adequate. However, at 65nm and below, eflash becomes expensive because of the number of added masks and manufacturing steps and fuses consume too much silicon area.  Beyond 65nm, eflash is not widely available if at all.  This opens an opportunity for one-time programmable antifuse NVM to serve a need otherwise unaddressed. Fabricated in standard logic CMOS, antifuse NVM migrates to smaller process geometries with no added manufacturing costs. And, by incorporating additional unused memory, software can be modified in the field by discarding existing memory locations and writing new content in the unused memory locations.

Noonen concluded his talk reiterating his contention that analog mixed signal represented new opportunity for fabs to wring additional return from 300mm manufacturing capacity being abandoned by large volume digital CMOS designs; that conventional analog IDMs unable to justify the high Capex for 300mm manufacturing could use this foundry capacity to remain competitive with analog IDMs that do make the investment; and that the Internet of Things provided the demand that would propel this analog mixed signal growth.

The Year of the Wearables, When Humans Become Nodes on the Internet of Things

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.

A good number of press releases coming out of the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show the week of January 6th deal with the topic of  “wearables,” the wrist bands, belt clips, and other appendages that monitor a person’s physical activity. Chip giant Intel spent time talking up the market segment in their sessions at CES. And health insurance giants contributed to joint announcements with software companies promoting wearables as a solution to the rising cost of medical care.

Wearables provide a potent new growth market for chip vendors, and it has created a whole new category of products for consumers to purchase. They will add to the collection of gadgets a person carries around rather than displacing a gadget every consumer already has—mobile phone, tablet, etc.  Unlike the poor MP3 player that got gobbled up, the new wearable devices will not suffer the same fate.  In fact, the number of wearables will multiply contributing to the proliferation of devices on the Internet of Things (IoT).

Neura Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif. start-up that offers a software platform for apps development and cloud services to enhance the value of these apps, came to CES to engage with developers. Gilad Meiri, CEO of Neura declares IoT proliferation will occur in waves, beginning with wearables, following by myriad devices installed into every home, and finally filling the car with heretofore unavailable functions.

Neura is hoping to win a share of an IoT market worth $8.9 trillion by 2020, growing at a compound annual rate of 7.9 percent, according to market research firm IDC. IDC’s prediction encompasses the entire IoT ecosystem, including the intelligent systems, connectivity services, platforms, analytics and vertical applications in addition to the security and professional services required to make the entire system work.

Wearable is where the action is at CES. In his keynote at CES Intel CEO Brian Krzanich showed off his own wearable wristband, which provides the runner with steps taken, distance run, active minutes—upright and moving versus sedentary in front of a screen—and calories consumed. If you’re really engaged, you will accurately enter your weight, the amount of calories you consume and the amount of fluid you take in daily into the app on your phone or PC, which will record this data and provide you with feedback on your health.

These devices are rudimentary in that they consists of an ARM CPU core and the accelerometer and gyro that goes into most every mobile phone. The wearable detects steps taken and from this computes everything else. The shortcomings of this is that the distance covered is typically less than the physical distance as measured by Google and the device doesn’t measure other vital signs—temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure. But, the next generation will most likely address this shortcoming.

Start-up Scanadu of Moffett Field, Calif. is taking the concept of measuring vital signs to the limit. Its prototype device called Scout aspires to emulate the Tricoder on Star Trek. Place the Scout on a patient’s forehead and it reads all his vital signs that can be transferred to a smartphone for analysis and processing. The ambition is to help distinguish minor illnesses treatable at home with bed rest and over the counter medications from major problems that demand emergency room treatment. The device is a contender for the Tricorder X prize that Qualcomm has established for the invention that provides Tricoder functionality.

During his keynote the Intel CEO demonstrated a means of measuring heart rate using ear buds plugged into a smart phone. The ear buds contained the same sensor as the wristband thus providing all the same information in addition to heart rate. Detecting and recording the other vital signs will soon follow suit. What’s missing is a dashboard to view these vital signs in real time. But that’s coming when the guys making Google Glass and its imitators take the data from sensors monitoring vital signs and display them for the runner to view in real time.

The wristbands and other wearables are targeting millinials, coveted consumers in the 18 to 31 year old age group. Yet another group is the aging baby boomers, 50 years and older that health insurance view as the target market for wearables. Great Call, the mobile phone service provider for seniors has expanded its service offering to include health monitoring.  It introduced GreatCall Link, a smartphone app that seamlessly allows family caregivers to remotely monitor the wearables on seniors’ in their care.

What provides these wearables their value is the “Big Data” behind them. At CES, United Healthcare showed off their health tools, which collects information on patients and provides feedback. In advance of CES, IBM and Technicolor teamed up to demonstrate a cloud-based monitoring and management service to handle the Internet of Things and machine-to-machine services at the 2014 CES. The large computing platforms analyzing the endless amount of data being collected by wearables and the proliferating numbers of IoT devices is what will provide the value to the individual user.

2014 Will See China Asserting Itself in IoT Technology

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.


With a voracious appetite for silicon electronic gadgets—consumer electronics, personal computers, and smart phones to name a few—drive the semiconductor industry. But, the demand for many of these devices in the U.S. and Europe has moved beyond the rapid growth phase and is now increasing at a more modest rate as indicated in Gartner’s “Market Share Analysis: Preliminary Total Semiconductor Revenue, Worldwide, 2013,” report. However, the potentially huge market of China has yet to reach this plateau and this geographic region will become the next mega consumer of semiconductors, displacing the U.S. in three years according to CPA firm KPMG.

China will stimulate growth as never before as a result of the wide sweeping reforms the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China’s Central Committee adopted in November last year. The progressive regulations include measures for protecting intellectual property rights as well as all forms of private ownership.  The measures ensure equal access to production, open and fair market competition, as well as legal protection and oversight. This industrial policy will stimulate innovation and development to accelerate information technology (IT) industry growth. Though still a third the size of the U.S. IT market, the research firm IDC said that China surpassed Japan in 2013 to become the second largest IT market, spending $179 billion in 2013.

One technology that will benefit from these new reforms is the Internet of Things (IoT). In November 2011, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) issued the 12th Five-Year Plan on the IoT.  The plan sets government and the private sector goals to accelerate development of the IoT sector in China for the period through 2015. The objective is to solve technology problems, establish standards, and promote and demonstrate real world IoT applications. In March 2008, the National People’s Congress established MIIT as one of the five “super ministries.” The ministry manages information technology development in China including the Internet, wireless telephony, broadcast, manufacture of electronics and information technology equipment and software, as well as the postal system.

In a presentation delivered in June 2012, Xiaohui Yu of MIIT detailed the major sectors where the ministry would promote IoT technology development with pilot projects. These included industrial control, agriculture, financial services, smart grid, intelligent transportation systems, logistics, health care, and public safety.  In the agriculture sector, for example, the MIIT spokesperson detailed how the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Finance launched a pilot project using RFID and bar codes to identify, track, and trace meat and vegetables in 20 cities. Citing the rapid growth of mobile payment as an example of IoT in financial services, he noted that registered subscribers of China Mobile’s mobile payment service reached nearly 40 million.

China’s center for IoT innovation is the city of Wuxi, an hour’s train ride northwest of Shanghai on the Yangtze River between Nanjing and Suzhou, another high tech innovation center. Wuxi’s National IoT innovation zone http://tinyurl.com/k56slr9 has several research institutes and around 300 companies that generate nearly $6.6 billion in annual revenue. One technology under development in Wuxi’s innovation zone is the sensor network with projects underway in the following disciplines:

  1. Sensor network standardization and validation testing platform development
  2. Integrated circuit design of low-power sensors for embedded systems
  3. Integration of sensor networks with mobile communication networks
  4. Research and demonstration of machine-to-machine applications

China is serious about IoT development as clearly evident in the amount of money the technology is expected to generate. According to the story “2015 target for basic ‘Internet of Things’ structure” on the China Daily website, MIIT estimated China’s IOT market at nearly $32 billion in 2010. And analysts predicted the market to double to over $60 billion in 2012 and grow to over $165 billion by 2016.

On August 7 2009, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Wuxi New District Science Park to establish a National Sensing Information Center in Wuxi. In his speech, he listed five strategic industries in order of importance for China:

  1. New Energy
  2. Sensor networks (or, the Internet of Things)
  3. Microelectronics and optoelectronics materials and new materials
  4. Health technology, biomedicine
  5. Exploitation of space, marine and earth

The Internet of things came in second, leaving no doubt that China will make major developments in the IoT technology next year and going forward.

Humans as termini on the Internet of Things

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.

Modern health care is the one profession that has defied automation and to this day still remains a relic of the 20th Century. This fact has not escaped the suppliers of mobile devices that are eager to develop new sensors besides the array currently on board. And it has spurred apps developers to exploit the functionality of sensors already on board these smart devices.

The long hanging fruit are the wearable devices targeting millennials, ages 18 to 29, the demographic that the Pew Research Institute shows are the most likely consumers. “Exercise is a big part of the lives of most Millennials.  More than half say they got some kind of vigorous exercise, such as jogging, biking or working out at a gym…” This is also the demographic most comfortable with technology. “Steeped in digital technology and social media, they treat their multi-tasking hand-held gadgets almost like a body part…”

According to Berg Insight, sales of smart glasses, smart watches and wearable fitness trackers reached 8.3 million units worldwide in 2012, up from 3.1 million devices in the previous year.  The analyst firm predicts total shipments of wearable technology devices to reach 64.0 million units in 2017, a compound annual growth rate of 50.6 percent. Aside from smart glasses, the rest of the wearable devices monitor performance, how far, how fast, how many calories burned…

However, new sensors being developed will change what can be monitored and provide even more insight into the way the body works. MC10 in Cambridge, Mass. is pioneering stretchable electronic circuits that can be worn as well as inserted into the body.  These circuits—accelerometers and gyros—have found their way into the Reebok CheckLight, a cap worn on the head that will detect the amount of head trauma in contact sports—football, hockey, lacrosse…

Based on technology developed by John Rogers, Swanlund Chair, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, these stretchable circuits can provide real time monitoring of a person’s health. MC10’s other product is the Biostamp, which can be applied like a bandage to the user’s wrist to monitor heart rate, body temperature, and hydration levels and relay them to a smartphone in real time.

The Biostamp is pretty technology rich, containing an electroencephalograph, electromyograph, electrocardiograph, temperature sensor, strain gauge, photo detectors, a wireless power coil for energy harvesting, and a WiFi radio for communicating with the smartphone. A video on the MC10 website shows a catheter inserting a small stamp on the outside wall of the heart to monitor this vital organ in real time.

Why is health care a green field for technology developers? Anyone paying attention to the raging debate over universal health care knows that besides covering everyone, cost is the next greatest challenge facing modern society. The health care industry resembles the computing industry circa 1950s, where teams of MIS professionals tended mainframes and anyone wanting access to compute power submitted a batch job that was placed in queue and processed in sequence.

Going to the doctor with an ailment or to the hospital emergency room follows the same model, queue up and get taken by the physician or ER staff as your priority in queue dictates.  Just as the advent of the microprocessor made it possible to put computing power in the hands of individuals, the smart phone and the developing sensors mentioned above are combining to put the potential of self-health care in the palm of everyone’s hand.

Self-diagnosis is also being helped by the massive amount of medical information currently on the web. Indeed IBM’s Watson computer is being pressed into service to analyze this on-line warehouse of medical information. With access to Watson, users could determine if physical symptoms and the data gleamed from sensors on or applied to the body warrant a trip to the emergency room or can be treated by over the counter medication in the case of the common cold or flu.

Just as information technology has made information about nearly everything we own—appliances, automobiles, electronic equipment, etc., it is on the brink of doing the same about the physical being. This is indicated by the investment major mobile device semiconductor manufacturers are making.  In December 2011, Qualcomm launched Qualcomm Life, a $100 million investment fund and a new gateway platform to improve the connectivity of mobile medical devices in patients’ homes. Its first release, the 2net platform, connects wireless devices sent home with patients, with the hospital or caregiver’s systems.

Qualcomm Life expects to be a profit oriented venture, with a total available market of 860 million individuals worldwide with at least one chronic disease.  Qualcomm Life reckons 25 percent of these individuals would immediately benefit from wireless home monitoring solutions and another 50 percent of them would benefit from handset integration of existing medical devices.  Increasingly the Internet of Things will include the human being as a terminus.

Can mobile devices enable primitive sentience in the global computing network?

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.

In a short video entitled The Nexus of Forces 2013, Special Report Update, “Chris Howard, Research VP at Gartner Group, made the following observation concerning the ongoing trend in computing. “The history of computing is about emancipating the computer from the box, from the mainframe and its architecture out to distributed computing and now into mobile computing, where we’re pushing more of the functionality out to the edge.” Today, the proliferating numbers of smart devices a large percentage of the world’s population carries represents the edge that Howard described. These computing devices are performing an increasing amount of decision-making independent of its owner.

What’s making this possible is the increasing numbers of sensors providing these devices with the inputs necessary to take on this initiative:  a tri-axis accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer; compass; multiple cameras and microphones; as well as sensors that monitor ambient light, pressure, proximity, temperature, and humidity. Most recently Apple introduced a fingerprint sensor, which ties the phone to the owner and prevents anyone else from using the device.  Combined with software, these sensors are enabling smart devices to make determinations that augment the decision making of its owner or others mining the data from these devices in the cloud.

In the majority of today’s mobile devices, sensors interface directly to the host processor, which performs sensory data processing and event detection.  In newer devices such as the Apple iPhone 5s and Motorola X8, a dedicated sensor processor, the M7 and contextual processor, respectively, now take on this role to improve the power and processing efficiency of the smart device. Motorola claims their architecture eliminates the need for two additional batteries that would otherwise be required.  Putting all the sensors under control of a dedicated processor results in power savings. Software that manages which sensors provide information the user will likely want, given his/her current location, makes this possible.

Sensor Platforms explains that by offloading the management of a mobile device’s on-board sensors from the applications processor to a separate embedded CPU such as a Cortex M3, power consumption can be reduced over 70 percent. This savings can be further improved with a processor designed for power management, such as found in the newest Apple and Motorola devices.

To put mobile device sensors’ role back into the perspective of the edge that Chris Howard detailed earlier, consider the Nericell project carried out by Microsoft researchers in India. Nericell—a play on the word ‘Nerisal’, which means ‘congestion’ in Tamil—uses the accelerometer, microphone, GSM radio, and/or GPS receiver in smart phones to monitor road and traffic conditions:  detecting potholes, bumps, braking, and honking in Bangalore, India. This data is then uploaded to the cloud.  To save power in the mobile devices, Nericell uses relatively low energy resources—cellular radio or accelerometer—to trigger more expensive resources—GPS or microphone.

The Nericell project resembles Waze, a community-based traffic and navigation app in the U.S. that provides traffic congestion information to the cloud.  Like Waze, Nericell collects data from a large number of users’ mobile devices to perform sensing and processing and to transmit the data to a server for aggregation. The project estimates a daily drive time of four hours. During this time, brake and bump detection are active throughout while audio and GPS are triggered for specific events, for example to determine current location.  The project estimated that adding the capability to an HP iPAQ would result in an additional 10 percent energy burden on the mobile device.

A prototype of Nericell, running on Windows Mobile 5.0 Pocket PCs have yielded promising results offering a cost-effective alternative to deployment of dedicated sensors on vehicles and/or on the roadside. The ability to harness the computing power and the ubiquitous installed base of sensors on mobile devices is providing the global connected computing network a primitive form of sentience.

e-Cigarette: Is this the next big consumer of silicon and software?

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.

The next major wave in semiconductor technology is the disposable designs, which already exists if you think of the many audio greeting cards currently for sale in gift shops everywhere. While the amount of intelligence in these cards is miniscule, designs are emerging that will require more intelligence, for example, the e-cigarette, which contains a microprocessor that creates a simulated tobacco experience.

According to Electronic Cigarette Report:  “The microprocessor is the mind of the e-cig. This silicon chip performs like a sensor to discover if the user takes a drag. Once the chip discovers a drag, it transmits the sign (signal) to the atomizer to begin performing (atomizing and heating the liquid nicotine to simulate the smoke of a real cigarette). This chip is also accountable for regulating the LED (at the tip that simulates a flame), censoring the charging and regulating the charging lights.”

The e-cigarette is an efficient drug dispensing machine and its ultimate capability has by no means been fully realized. According to Wikipedia, the e-cigarette was first introduced to the Chinese domestic market in May 2004 by Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist, who worked for Golden Dragon Holdings, now Ruyan Group (Holdings) Limited, based in Hong Kong.  By mixing propylene glycol (PG) and a variable concentration of nicotine, the device delivers a dose of nicotine in the form of vapor that when exhaled simulates smoke. Clever market research determined that the smoker’s satisfaction came from seeing the equivalent in harmless vapor that he/she previously experienced in smoke.

That’s where the microprocessor inside the e-cigarette comes in. It senses the smoker inhaling via a pressure sensor, heats the mixture of PG and nicotine to simulate the sensation of heated smoke, and delivers the vapor into the lungs as a cigarette would. The microprocessor also lights an LED at the end to simulate the burning end of a real cigarette. The product has been a hit with Citicorp predicting $3Billion in sales by 2015.

And the major U.S. and UK cigarette companies are getting into the game, big time.  Lorillard Inc. acquired U.K.-based electronic-cigarette maker Skycig after earlier buying privately held Blu Ecigs, based in Charlotte, N.C.  Reynolds American Inc. launched its own e-cigarette, the Vuse Solo in Colorado, where it immediately denied that the new product was inspired by marijuana. The suggestion is that any form of inhalable substance can be delivered effectively via an e-cigarette.

The potential of this drug distribution system is limited only by the intelligence contained in the microprocessor. Add more smarts and the cigarettes can offer flavors beyond the menthol contained in real cigarettes. Change the look and feel of the physical device and add the right flavoring with the right amount of nicotine and vapor and the cigarette could become a Cuban Cohiba cigar.  Check out the list of flavors offered by Flavor Producers Inc. of Valencia, CA and you get the idea that just about any taste can be satisfied.

Mixing flavors, scents, tactile feel, and smoking experience—the amount of its lingering sensation once exhaled—are all within the realm of software and hardware simulation. Beyond the user experience, the electronics within the e-cigarette can expand outward with the addition of WiFi. The device can log the smoker’s substance use and warn him/her when a preset threshold has been reached. The smoker can program the device from his/her mobile device to regulate the amount of nicotine or other inhaled substance at different times of day. And of course the user can share his activity on social media.

The one last remaining obstacle is the cool factor. Will the e-cigarette become as pervasively cool as the real cigarette was to the generations of the earlier 20th century? Or will it be relegated to the clandestine places where it’s okay to be bad? The answer to these questions will determine if the e-cigarette becomes a huge consumer of disposable silicon or is relegated to another niche alongside the audio greeting card.

Smart device indoor positioning meets real time location services

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.

The folks over at IDTechEx had a webinar on Wednesday August 26, 2013 and I sat in because of its title “Mobile Phone Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS) 2014-2024.” The presenter Dr. Peter Harrop, Chairman of the UK-based market research firm, began by explaining the difference between indoor positioning systems (IPS) and real time location services (RTLS). IPS has garnered all the hype because of its application in mobile phones and other wireless devices, but RTLS is the sleeping giant about to awake, as hinted to by a $500M order Hewlett Packard Enterprise Services won from the U.S. Veterans Administration to develop and install an RTLS in all its medical facilities and mail-order pharmacies (nextgov.com).

Dr. Harrop recites the case argued by wireless service providers, equipment vendors, handset manufacturers and social networking providers of the promise for IPS technology. In IPS’ fullest implementation, the argument goes, a user’s mobile phone could locate in a multistory shopping complex, for example, a friend, a particular store, and ultimately a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes in that store. It could also direct you to the nearest exit in the case of a major disaster and help locate family members separated in the chaos. However today, Dr. Harrop characterized the fulfillment of the promises as “primitive.”

Of these scenarios, finding friends or family members is the easiest as this will involve using existing mobile phone functionality. The other scenario—finding those designer shoes on sale—requires some hardware, software, and services refinement. Today, it’s possible to find a store offering incentives if you’ve enabled location services and are accepting messages from vendors in the mall offering deals. But finding those special shoes in that store is still a manual task because the RFID tag in the merchandise that could pinpoint its location is operating on a different frequency than the WiFi and BluTooth found in mobile devices.

Furthermore, indoor positioning is still primitive because the navigation is still dead reckoning based on the last GPS fix before the user enters a large building such as a shopping mall or office building. Thereafter, navigation is left up to accelerometers and gyros to determine movement on a given level and the barometer to detect movement to other floors. Using received signal strength indication from the over-crowded WiFi or Bluetooth 2.4 GHz ISM band within the structure, the phone may be able to correct for errors in the phone’s computed location.  Indoor navigation is also primitive because Google hasn’t gotten round to having its self-driving cars map the 3D space of multistory buildings. Thus converting a computed position to a store in a mall or business in an office complex is still pretty hit-or-miss.

RTLS is another thing entirely and the continuation of a technology promise made with the advent of radio frequency identifiers (RFIDs).  According to Wikipedia, Mario Cardullo patented today’s RFID in January 1973, a passive radio transponder with 16-bit memory for use as a toll device. Now widely deployed for automated toll collection on bridges, weigh stations, and toll roads, the technology is being applied to securely track assets and individuals at a distance, using second generation RFID tags.

The HP order provides an example of the type of system that will be rolling out in large enterprises worldwide. The Veterans Administration estimated that each of its 152 hospitals would require 80,000 RTLS tags and each of its seven mail-order pharmacy would use 3,000 tags. These tags would be installed in hospital assets that today are managed manually. The new system will be able to track supplies and equipment within 3 feet, thus easily locating and maintaining inventory.  According to Nevtgov.com report, the Navy is soliciting bids for a similar system to track 300,000 assets and personnel in its hospitals worldwide.

According to IDTechEx’s research report “Mobile Phone Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS) and Real Time Locating Systems (RTLS) 2014-2024,” the convergence of IPS and RTLS using second generation RFID will drive tens of billions of dollars of business that is emerging with Apple, Samsung, Google, Nokia, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and IBM clashing over the spoils.  While IPS relies on GPS as well as indoor navigation in a wide-ranging environment, RTLS is more concerned with tracking assets and personnel within known facility that may be geographically dispersed.

Though the vast majority of the billions of dollars in business will be made in software and systems development there will also be renewed design activity in the RFID tags and readers where chip design companies can participate. One function that will drive some of this design activity is security, especially where tags are used in monitoring the movement of critical assets and individuals. Take the example of the passport cards and enhanced drivers licenses, both of which can be read at a distance and thereby cloned as highlighted in the paper “EPC RFID Tag Security Weaknesses and Defenses: Passport Cards, Enhanced Drivers Licenses, and Beyond,” authored by University of Washington researchers.

Where before an RFID tag might only contain its Electronic Product Code (EPC), radio and energy harvesting circuits to power the radio, additional hardware and software are being designed in to provide enhanced security. The state machine that controlled the tag’s functions in the past will be replaced by more powerful processors and low-cost, low power non-volatile memory.

While the passport and drivers license examples point up the problem of security, their volumes are minuscule when compared to the number of branded products that move from manufacturer to retail outlet. Protecting this flow of goods from the high volume of counterfeit products being injected into the flow has become a major objective for manufacturers and retailers. The case is made in the white paper “Building Radio frequency IDentification for the Global Environment” For chip makers looking to participate in this market opportunity, devising a low-cost, highly secure RFID tag is the next problem to solve. Once it has been solved then maybe having your smart phone find that pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes in the shopping mall will be a piece of cake and you can be sure that the for the high sticker price you pay, you will be getting the genuine article.



Examining the Enduring Appeal of the 8051

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.

The widespread deployment of MEMS in smart phones has ancillary benefits that I thought worth looking into. One of these was breathing new life into 8-bit processors.  I began my search by calling Hal Barbour. He’s the CEO of CAST, Inc. a company that has made a business offering a range of popular and standards-based IP cores including the venerable 8051.  His COO, Nikos Zervas, joined the call as well.

The question I had for the two of them was the roll that the 8051 had in the development of the smart sensors going into smart phones, automobiles and Internet of Things. I picked the 8051 because of my past association with the processor while at my old company ARC International. One of the growing markets for ARC was in 8051 replacements and one of the company’s successes was displacing the 8051 in USB drive controllers.

The old saying that as one door closes another one opens appeared to be working for the 8051.  As the CPU was designed out of the USB applications it began being integrated with smart sensors in a multichip package.  The automotive tire pressure sensor was an example. Mandated by law to be included on new vehicles, all car models produced after September 2007 came with the tire pressure sensor. Many of the sensors came with the 8051, for example the Texas Instruments TPIC82000 Series.  The electric utility power meter was another application adopting the 8051.

Hal pointed out that many of the sensor designs that began adopting the 8051 were being fabricated in the older processes, 130nm and larger.  At these process nodes, gate count matters and the relative small size of the 8051 is a desired feature.

The continuing attraction to this simple 8-bit processor is borne out by market research data.  The last market research on 8-bit processors I was able to find was published 2008 and it showed the 8051 with a declining 19 percent of the embedded processor market, still the largest share of all the 8-bit processors featured in the report.  A recent IC Insights research bulletin published August 13 showed embedded processor in general growing; accounting for 11 percent of MPU sales in 2013 (versus 9 percent previously).

Hal and Nikos had a laundry list of reasons why the 8051 has remained popular since its formal introduction in 1980 beginning with cost. Unlike 32-bit processors that come with a license fee and royalty stream, the 8051 can be had for one upfront charge.  And like the popular 32-bit architectures, the 8051 has a wide and deep ecosystem of software, programmer familiarity, and design expertise that make it and ideal solution for a wide range of embedded computing tasks.

Next, the two cited the fact that most of the engineers building sensors are analog and mixed signal designers.  Their designs need more than a state machine to control analog mixed signal circuits and the 8051 fits the bill. The 8-bit microcontroller core also comes with the interfaces—Philips’ I2C, Motorola’s SPI, Bosch’s CAN buses—to connect analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters as well as other peripherals. To support remote sensors, the 8051 comes with circuits and stacks for wireless communications protocols:  Zigbee, WiFi, BlueTooth, as well as Ethernet.

I asked Hal when the 8051 would reach the end of the road. He said he had thought the 8-bit workhorse was reaching its end six or seven years ago.  In anticipation, he had begun adding 32-bit CPU IP to CAST’s product offering.  But as history has demonstrated, the 8051 kept on going. Today though there are signs it may be loosing out to 32-bit alternatives.

Nikos pointed out that the applications that are migrating to more functionality are leaving the 8051 behind. If the data being processed comes in 8- or 16-bit resolution, simple sensors detecting on or off conditions or non-critical temperature and pressure readings, for example, then the area and power is competitive with a 32-bit solution, which might be overkill. If the data requires 32-bit resolution, such as being demanded in smart phone applications with their 6-, 9-, and now 10-degrees of freedom inertial measurement units, then 32-bit processors win hands down.

However, just as new applications came in to save the venerable 8-bit processor before, Internet of Things may yet hold some salvation for the 8051 going forward. It may find service as a controller in home monitoring systems providing WiFi, BlueTooth, and Zigbee protocol processing for communications to a central controller. Nikos says that these are the applications that the 8051 perform well. The growth of disposable sensors in medical and home health care applications could be another area of growth for the 8-bit engine.


How the smart phone is driving the Internet-of-things

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.

The Internet of things is coming thanks to the technology being developed for the smart phone. MEMS accelerometers in automobiles that ship in the 10s of millions of units worldwide each year are in smart phones which Credit Suisse predicts will be over a billion units in 2014. Yole Développement says this will be a huge market driver for MEMS devices. Worldwide, smart phone and tables created a MEMS market worth $2.2 billion in 2012 and is set to be worth about $2.7 billion in 2013, the Lyon, France-based market research firm predicts. Furthermore, the average selling price of the MEMS devices will decline over the period thus opening up applications in the realm of Internet of things.

But smart phones not only come with three-axis accelerometers, but gyroscope and magnetometer as well as compass and barometer (pressure sensor).  Dan Brown, CEO of Sensor Platforms, Inc. a San Jose, Calif.-based supplier of software that makes sensor fusion, user context awareness, and pedestrian dead reckoning possible in smart phones and tablets, says a three-axis accelerometer is all that is needed to determine the context of a phone:  in a pocket, on a table, in a moving vehicle, etc.  The next major step is indoor navigation, where GPS tracking isn’t available and where GPS would not be not effective determining location in a multi-story building.

That’s where the barometer and magnetometer come in. The former provides the signature for elevation, what floor in the building. The magnetometer provides the signature for magnetic anomalies that can distort the direction of true north, essential for accurately determining the direction of the user moving about indoors. Today, getting rid of this distortion requires the gyroscope, although many solutions request the user to move the phone in a series of figure eights to recalibrate the compass back to north, which even if done does not improve the situation.

The software Brown’s company supplies processes the electrical stimulus from the array of sensors in a smart device to determine the location and orientation of the user’s phone at any given point in time.  More important, however, is the software achieves this result while reducing power use to the absolute minimum to preserve a phone’s battery life. Some sensors are more frugal with power than others. For example, the accelerometer uses the least power while the gyroscope uses much more. Thus, by minimizing the operating time of the power-hungry sensors, the software can achieve its purpose while minimizing battery consumption.

Brown believes that the state-of-the-art in sensors, smart phone computing power, software, and applications are converging to make augmented reality possible. By way of example, in the next 12 to 18 months it may be possible for smart devices with the appropriate apps loaded to determine the location of a user in a building and what he or she is viewing. Furthermore, the app will be able to describe to the user what he or she is viewing:  for example, a piece of art in a museum, the artist, the subject, and background on the creation of the piece.  Knowing a users’ location, activity, and interests will enable Location Based Services (LBS) such as instantaneously providing a coupon for a discount in the museum gift shop targeted to the specific user.

The software development continues to progress assured that the hardware platform that will run the code will be available when it’s ready to ship. The hardware meanwhile continues to evolve as CMOS process node advances make it possible to include more functionality on chip.  Among sensor suppliers the drive is to integrate more functions on chip. For example, the Bosch Sensortec BMA355 integrates a three-axis accelerometer with a first nine-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU) including a gyroscope and magnetometer along with a 32-bit microcontroller, thus creating what the market has termed the sensor hub.

The debate is whether the phone hardware platform will evolve to one that includes a sensor hub or whether the software effecting the function will be distributed among the existing processors already in the phone:  applications processor, power management IC (PMIC), GPU, etc. or a combination of hub and one of the existing processors. The economics of packaging disparate devices—electro-mechanical MEMS that favor larger process nodes and non-standard materials with digital devices that are best done in standard CMOS and smaller process nodes may ultimate make the determination.

The proliferation of sensors driven by the connectivity afforded by the phone represents the leading edge of the Internet of things. These include wearable sensor, comprising everything from athletic performance monitors like the Nike Fuelband to health aids like the activity monitors for an aging population. Today, these wearable sensors lack the reliability of those in smart phones and tablets. Furthermore, the limited-function hardware platform found in these devices lack the refinement that exists in hardware platforms for mobile phones, which affords a widely varied functionality.

Architected to operate on battery power for long periods, these wearable designs will require the lowest power CPU in combination with small amounts of program storage and data uploaded to the cloud and not stored locally.  Just as the mobile phone created a huge market for the ARM processor and flash storage for program storage, these wearable devices will create their own hardware platforms.  They will be driven by a highly constrained power budget.  The budget will dictate CPUs that sip power and non-volatile program storage besides flash, either ROM or one-time programmable memory or a combination of the two that use no power to retain memory and little power during memory access.