LAS VEGAS The Next Big Thing in electronics made a slew of appearances at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show here but may not have been widely recognized for the rising star that it is and the new generation of small, fast, cheap, connected semiconductor architectures at its foundation was barely acknowledged beyond the environs of a few exhibitors' booths and suites.
Even the CES keynoters gave short shrift to the critical role of high-performance silicon in today's booming consumer sector. Bill Gates referred more than two dozen times to software's role in "defining new devices and how those devices work together," but neither the Microsoft chairman and chief software architect nor any of the five other CES keynote speakers so much as uttered the word silicon.
The irony is that while software gets the glory, it's silicon that's at the heart of the industry's next darling: pervasive media. And with the tech industry's shift from a compute- to a media-centric model, fundamental electronics design particularly for the consumer markets on which many global economies are staking their turnaround hopes is enjoying a renaissance.
Pervasive media refers to the electronic extension and expansion of the human senses through the ubiquitous presence of intelligent software and silicon systems. The concept relies on a mix of technologies, from digital signal processing to computer networks and information management. Its adherents envision, and in some cases are beginning to deliver, a spectrum of content, applications and services that enable improved information access and communications across a range of rich interfaces, displays, smart output devices and terminals.
Having turned the traditional media business on its head, pervasive media is extending its influence to mobile computing, e-learning, e-commerce and interactive entertainment.
Consumer electronics, for one, "is poised for a huge, significant change, the magnitude of which I don't think most people are capable of appreciating," Andrew Lippman, senior research scientist and director of the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, Mass.), said in an interview conducted on the CES show floor. Lippman called the integration of wireless into hi-fi and other consumer devices a "threshold event," adding that the barriers to interfacing heretofore incompatible devices are crumbling as the enabling electronics get cheaper and faster.
"All parts of the system are opening up, and things are going to become even more open and more distributed," Lippman said. "This opens the door . . . to big capabilities."
The Media Lab unveiled an initiative at CES that keeps the pervasive-media concept squarely in its sights. Aimed at injecting media technology from the fabled lab into the mainstream of consumer electronics, the initiative will augment MIT's existing sponsor program, giving small and mid-sized companies access to technology across a spectrum of emerging media disciplines. The lab's CES booth offered a glimpse of just some of the media and sensing devices the initiative might cover.
In the past "technology from the lab has been hard for a small company to access," said V. Michael Bove Jr., director of the Consumer Electronics Lab at MIT. The initiative, Bove said, "will make it easier for these companies to develop applications from the lab's technology." It will encourage hands-on collaborations with industry to explore new technologies, devices and, most important, ways of thinking about consumer products and services.
Initially the research will focus on five areas: material and design/fabrication methods; power technologies, including wireless, parasitic and self-generated power sources; innovations in sensors, actuators and displays; self-managing ecosystems and smart devices; and cooperative wireless communications.
"It's now possible to embed enormous amounts of data- and signal-processing power into virtually any type of device," opening the door to the pervasive-media phenomenon, Bove observed. That, he added, begs some questions: "How do you make ecosystems of these devices, and how do you create these ecosystems so that each thing knows what the others know and so that they all can interface to each other?"
Advances in materials research, power technologies, smart sensors and design methods are destined to extend the human senses across many thresholds and drive pervasive media to levels we can only imagine today. These advances will be realized in such realms as safety and security, smart homes and intelligent workspaces. In the PC and Internet arenas, Microsoft and hundreds of other CES exhibitors are already delivering software and devices that tie PCs to televisions, DVD recorders, set-top boxes and a wealth of graphics, audio and imaging systems.
Intrinsyc MicroPDA platform is platform for pervasive-media development.
The technologies underlying pervasive media have been staples in the videogame market for years. Today, wireless communications and other media technologies let millions of gamers across the globe hook up with one another through cell phones and the Internet. Pervasive media at the grassroots level has even been credited with advancing Howard Dean's quest for nomination as the Democratic party's presidential candidate.
The role of chip architectures in driving the pervasive-media phenomenon hasn't been lost on everyone. Dozens of chip makers exhibited their latest architectures on the CES show floor and in private suites.
In one of the most ambitious and far-reaching projects to date, Royal Philips Electronics and Visa International jointly unveiled an RFID-based contactless transaction-processing technology that promises to change the way digital content and services are distributed, paid for and accessed.
The fruit of a previously announced alliance, the system exemplifies the paradigm of sense extension and embodies many of the building blocks of pervasive-media technology. It's based on Philips' Near Field Communications (NFC) technology, which uses a tiny RFID chip embedded in a smart Visa credit card that can simultaneously enable user authorization and transaction processing when a user brings its into proximity with a variety of card readers.
The approach hammers home the concept of an "ecosystem of devices," each of which is cognizant of, and able to interface to, the other devices in its ecosystem.
Near Field Communications is an ISO 18092 standard for exchanging data between consumer electronic devices, such as PCs and mobile phones, at a typical distance of 10 centimeters and a frequency of 13.56 MHz. When two NFC-compliant devices are brought within range, they detect each other's presence and begin to determine how they can exchange data. For example, bringing an NFC-enabled camera close to a TV fitted with the same technology could initiate a transfer of images, while a PDA and a computer would know how to synchronize address books or a mobile phone and an MP3 player would be able to transfer music files.
Using NFC, consumers can quickly establish wireless links between devices. It provides a more natural, human-sense-based method for connecting and interacting with devices, thus broadening the scope of networking appliances.
In a private suite off the CES show floor, Philips and Visa officials showed a demonstration setup involving a Compaq I-Pac PDA equipped with an RFID reader and an advertising poster for a music concert containing an embedded NFC device. When brought within comms range of an NFC logo on the poster, the PDA was able to execute a transaction through Visa to purchase concert tickets.
Both Philips and Visa noted that this incarnation of pervasive media is a real technology that's in use today. Project partner Universal Music France, a unit of media giant Vivendi, offers an authorization and transaction service based on the approach.
Component costs for the NFC chips that form the embedded-media portion of the system run in the "tens-of-cents range," while the bill of materials for embedding a reader into a cell phone, PDA or other device is "less than five dollars," said Scott McGregor, president and CEO of Philips Semiconductors. The data exchange rate at contact for the chip and reader is 1 Mbit/second.
Philips plans to build the new, intuitive pervasive media technology into its Nexperia line of phones and other consumer devices.
Keynoter Gates wasn't wrong when he called software key to "defining new types of devices and how these devices work together." But the intertwining roles of software and hardware cannot be ignored. Indeed, in many industry segments particularly in complex consumer products such as digital video recorders, which require massive amounts of digital and MPEG coding and decoding chip makers must also be software gurus.
"We do everything for our customers, from silicon to huge amounts of coding and other integration and packaging everything right up to the plastic package," said Didier Le Gail, vice president and general manager of home media products at LSI Logic Corp.
Many chip companies are supplying key software, along with their silicon, to Microsoft, though the company is hardly forthcoming about its suppliers. Microsoft's Portable Media Center, a showpiece of Gates' keynote demonstration, is powered by Intel's Xscale architecture. And Analog Devices' BlackFin DSP architecture is the processing engine for the hardware extensions to Microsoft's Media Center PC.
At the silicon architecture level, scalability and portability figure highly in the equation for media-rich applications. Never before has so much data and signal-processing power been available and so easily connected to the outside world at such tight levels of integration, for such low cost and with so low a power budget. Companies that showed breakthrough silicon technologies last week included LSI Logic, Analog Devices, Intel, Cirrus Logic, Texas Instruments, Motorola, Philips, STMicroelectronics, Invidia and Broadcom.
"What we're seeing is 'digital media anywhere,' and next year at CES it will be even more pervasive," said John Croteau, general manager for Analog Devices' media platforms and services and DSP and system products operations. Croteau and marketing director Robert DeRobertis last year authored a white paper, "The Rise of Embedded Media Processing," outlining DSP's role in the pervasive-media phenomenon. The authors cite a "renaissance in digital signal processing" that they say has resulted from quantum performance leaps in processing performance and steep declines in silicon cost.
In its CES suite, Analog Devices demonstrated platforms that employed its Blackfin processors to enable applications that previously would have been handled by custom ASIC implementations.
The tech world today is swapping out the computing-intensive model for a media-intensive one. That might explain the sudden surge in interest by companies like Gateway and Hewlett-Packard in developing plasma TVs and devices to construct a bridge between the workhorse PC and the so-called media center computers poised to invade the living room as the locus of digital life in the home.
Even mighty Intel is looking to lessen its dependency on the microprocessor. Intel announced late last year that it plans to make chips for the projection television market, taking on TI, which already occupies an entrenched position in the segment. And at CES, Intel revealed it will look beyond internal development and products to further the progress of its digital-home concept.
The chip giant disclosed plans to invest more than $200 million in companies developing digital-home hardware and software. Observers have estimated that as much as $150 million of the new fund will be made available to new companies.
The fund will be managed by Intel Capital and is designed to "drive the convergence of personal computers and consumer electronic devices on a seamless, wireless home network," the company said in a statement.