DSP and programmable device needs increase with expanding reach of consumer electronics

2The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has expanded into an embedded electronics show in recent years with its increasing focus on electronics outside of the consumer gadget and appliance spaces. CES's showcase of electronics depends on wireless connectivity and extensive data processing, which will require more use of DSP and FPGAs.

For the most important emerging trends and future directions for the electronics industry, there is no better event to attend than the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. With 3,250 exhibitors spread across 1.9 million net square feet of exhibit space at multiple venues and a reported 150,000 attendees, to say that CES can be overwhelming is an understatement. While some jaded critics have expressed the opinion that there was nothing new at the show, or that Apple’s (and now Microsoft’s) absence diminishes its value, they fail to look past the glitz of all the shiny new gadgets to recognize the more significant developments – those which will impact our industry and our lives long past the next holiday shopping season.

In recent years, CES has expanded in scope well beyond what we would typically think of as “consumer” electronics. Mass adoption of technology has always created benefits that migrate into non-consumer markets, to business enterprises, industrial applications, and even the defense sector. Now we see that happening at a much more rapid pace with the “consumerization” of Information Technology (IT), a prime example being the shift to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). At CES, TechZones were devoted to developments in digital health, MEMS, and robotics – not exactly the types of technology you would expect to find at your neighborhood Best Buy. A large exhibit space dedicated to “Smart Car” technology from the likes of Ford, Audi, Lexus, and Chevrolet bore more of a resemblance to an auto show than a gadget fest. The bottom line is that embedded technology is now pervasive in our lives, and CES has changed to reflect that.

Semiconductors steal the CES spotlight

Semiconductor companies understand that traditional boundaries between technology sectors are changing dramatically. Many take advantage of the broad exposure that CES can provide by inviting customers, media, and industry analysts to their private demo suites at the show where they can discuss their newest innovations away from the chaos of the main Las Vegas Convention Center floor. CES has become a showcase event for semiconductor technology, and you don’t need to look far beneath the surface to see that.

Qualcomm took over the premiere CES pre-show keynote spot after Microsoft withdrew from CES this year, and used the opportunity to announce their next generation of highly integrated Snapdragon processors. Samsung followed on the same stage two days later, raising the bar on multicore application processors with the introduction of Exynos Octa, which will pack two sets of quad cores consisting of both ARM Cortex A15s and Cortex A7s. Dr. Stephen Woo, Samsung Electronics President for Device Solutions, invited ARM CEO Warren East to share the stage; the spotlight shone brightly on semiconductors at the CES keynote, and the post-PC era slipped right in to take over from the Wintel regime of Microsoft and Intel.

Other major themes at CES were the Internet of Things (IoT), embedded sensors, and wireless, connected everything. As a result, exhibitors describing applications for DSP could be found in a number of areas. Qualcomm announced they will integrate the new Hexagon DSP architecture as a key component in future Snapdragon processors to handle control functions as well as to perform audio, video, and embedded vision signal processing. The company is a founding member of the Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) Foundation, along with ARM and Samsung. HSA has the goal of making it easier to program next-generation heterogeneous processors that will combine CPUs, GPUs, and DSPs on a single SoC.

HSA contributors Tensilica and CEVA were also at CES to promote applications of their DSP IP cores. Tensilica introduced a new HiFi Mini DSP core, targeting hands-free applications for voice-activated user interfaces, which require low power in order to be always on and listen for spoken commands. CEVA demonstrated implementation of the latest IEEE 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard and GNSS satellite navigation on their XC323 DSP core, and VP of Marketing Eran Briman said that speech processing for “natural user interfaces” is also now a major focus area for his company. He sees increasing demand for audio post-processing in smartphones for noise cancellation, high-definition audio, and beam-forming in voice conferencing applications where customers are planning to integrate as many as eight microphones.

FPGA vendors skip the show

The ever-increasing pace of new product development that was evident at CES should drive greater demand for programmable devices, so it was surprising that the largest FPGA companies were not in attendance this year. However, a new startup that has entered the market for FPGA design tools was present: Singapore-based Plunify. Founder HarnHua Ng, who previously worked at Xilinx, said that his company is following a Software as a Service (SaaS) model in offering cloud-based access to tools for achieving timing closure in the placement and routing of FPGAs. Ng says that Plunify is working with both Xilinx and Altera to add cloud functionality to the Vivado and Quartus tool suites. Plunify customers will be able to purchase credits, similar to a prepaid cell phone plan, to run multiple parallel iterations of timing-driven synthesis and place and route. The idea is to more quickly achieve timing closure through parallel optimization. In the future, Plunify may also offer cloud-based simulation.

Lattice Semiconductor also held private meetings in their suite at CES, with the theme of “Mobile Innovation.” Brent Przybus, Sr. Director of Corporate and Product Marketing at Lattice, said that his company is focused on low- to ultra-low-density programmable devices that can be sold for 50 cents to $2, meeting the price-sensitive requirements for high-volume consumer electronics devices. The Lattice MachXO2 and iCE40 can be used as companion devices to application processors to provide product differentiation, and to offload many mixed-signal interface functions. In a demonstration, Lattice showed the MachXO2 FPGA being used to provide the serial-to-parallel interface between a Mobile Industry Processor Interface (MIPI) Camera Serial Interface-2 (CSI-2) imager and an Image Signal Processor (ISP). Such an application is common in smartphones and tablets, and is also increasingly being used in embedded vision applications, such as safety systems in the smart cars that were prominently displayed at CES.

In a post-CES discussion, Altera PR Manager Steve Gabriel also mentioned automotive as the largest segment of the consumer electronics space that his company is addressing. Gabriel listed advanced driver assist systems, communications, and In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) as three primary focus areas for Altera, along with electric vehicles. Smart cars require the integration of many different sensors, from onboard video cameras to radar-based collision avoidance systems. This is an application area where Altera is proposing the use of Cyclone V FPGAs with their embedded ARM Cortex-A9 processors. By combining the FPGA’s floating point DSP capabilities with application software running on the ARM core, Altera says that high-volume applications can be supported with faster time to market and superior performance compared to ASICs.

The wider future of DSP

The scope of consumer electronics is expanding rapidly. While much attention is still on products for entertainment, we now utilize personal electronics in nearly all aspects of our daily lives. The closing speech in Samsung’s keynote by former U.S. President Bill Clinton also stressed the trend that today’s connected devices can affect global issues. The Internet is being transformed from a web of PCs and servers to an Internet of Things, which will connect billions of devices for information, communication, transportation, commerce, and safety and wellness, along with countless other applications. Processing data from these devices, as well as providing wireless connectivity, will require more extensive use of DSP. Time to market pressures drive the need for greater programmability and rapid innovation, and the combination of DSP and FPGAs would appear to be an ideal solution. However, manufacturers must first prove that they can hit the price points required to address this highly competitive space.