At age 7--a time when most boys are building things with blocks and Legos--Carson Page set his sights a little higher. Since last year, Carson, who turned 8 on July 7 and will enter the third grade in September, has been programming circuits with FPGA software from vendor Actel Corp.
Carson, who has had a penchant for science since he learned to talk, developed an interest in FPGAs by watching his father, Ray, an electronic design consultant who specializes in video and LCDs and sometimes writes source code for FPGAs. Carson persuaded Ray to let him download Actel's Libero integrated development environment (IDE) and begin tinkering with it.
In January, Ray Page, an Actel customer, mentioned his son's unusual hobby to an Actel field applications engineer. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company responded by sending Carson a development kit complete with an evaluation board to enable him to put his designs in practice. (Carson does not actually do what a university student or professional EE might consider complex designs, but he has mastered the software enough to make the LED on the evaluation board blink and to design simple circuits.)
Actel also put Carson to work. After catching wind of the 7-year-old whiz kid in Georgetown, Texas (about 20 miles north of Austin), "I decided that Carson would be a good guinea pig," said Jake Chuang, senior director of applications solutions marketing at Actel. Chuang asked Carson to evaluate a beta version of Libero 8.0 prior to the IDE's commercial release in June.
Chuang said Carson provided "some very interesting and encouraging feedback," mostly about how he was able to use the tools without reading the technical documentation. Carson participated in a number of conference calls to provide feedback to Actel, and he actually discovered a few bugs in the software.
Carson, who had initially used an earlier Libero release, said the new version was easier to use. Libero 8.0 includes a feature called SmartDesign, which the company says lets users design at a higher level of abstraction, visually creating and then automatically abstracting block-based system designs into synthesis-ready VHDL or Verilog components. "I like it a whole lot," Carson said. "You go to schematic to make sure that everything works, and you get perfect HDL code. You convert that to a file that you program into the board."
Chuang acknowledges that Carson is not your typical preteen--the company has no plans to begin marketing its tools and products to 7-year-olds. But he said Carson's evaluation of the IDE is relevant because it validates that people of various programming experience levels are able to easily understand and use the tools.
In addition to FPGA programming, Carson takes part in activities more typical of kids his age, such as karate and soccer. "I'm a great goalie," he says. He also enjoys playing with his 6-six-year-old sister, Kelly.
According to Ray Page, Carson's interests are varied and change often. "At night he reads anything from an encyclopedia to the Hardy Boys." But, Ray adds, "From the time he began to talk, he has always been fascinated with the way things work--he's always been interested in electronics."
Carson was running applications on a PC when he was 18 months old and received his own PC for his second birthday, Ray said. By the time Carson was 4, he could install an operating system himself and correct driver problems if he had to, Ray added. Last Christmas, Carson asked for and received an oscilloscope, complementing a "real workbench" that Carson has assembled over the past several Christmases and birthdays, Ray said.
Ray Page said he and Carson's mother, Lisa, do sometimes have to push Carson to get out and do more things, and they do put limits on his computer time. But, while they sometimes worry about him spending too much time on science, Ray also notes that Carson is very well behaved. "He listens way more than I did as a kid," said Ray, who is sole proprietor of design services provider Attodyne Inc.
"Ninety-eight percent of the time, I am totally thrilled about his quest for knowledge," Ray said. "About 2 percent of the time, I've had enough. He will keep asking questions and you will either get to the end of the limits of your knowledge or you will be talking about protons and neutrons before he is satisfied." (Though he says he no longer remembers it all, Carson at one time could explain the nuclear mechanics of the sun).
Actel's Chuang hopes to tap Carson to evaluate future Actel releases. But Carson may have other long-term plans. Rather than pursuing a career in engineering, he currently has his sights set on becoming a jet fighter pilot. He has already logged many hours on a flight simulator and plans to pursue his pilot's license (the Pages live in an airpark with a dirt runway and plan to buy a plane soon).
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