SHANGHAI - On its surface, Apexone Microelectronics Inc., consisting of 40 people in Shanghai, is your typical one-trick Chinese fabless chip company. The company designs an optical sensor chip that goes inside millions of mice used for PCs. Ho hum.
However, on that basis, Apexone, founded in 2002, is already the second largest optical sensor SoC provider for PC mice, after Taiwan-based PixArt Imaging. With 1,000 customers, Apexone works directly or indirectly with all the PC OEMs and ODMs in the world, claimed James Gao, founder, president and CEO.
Spending a few hours with Gao in his office here, though, and you realize that Gao's ambition extends far beyond mere success as a China fabless. Armed with its optical navigation device technology and a host of patents, Gao hopes to spin his company's core human interface technology into three application platforms: PCs, smartphones and smart TVs.
Enter the demo of Apexone-developed ÁPad (pronounced Mu Pad) prototype. Scheduled for launch in the next three months, the ÁPad could be one of those devices that OEMs and consumers just plain want -- with little prodding and no lengthy explanations.
ÁPad is an ultra-portable computing device -- the size of a USB thumb drive -- that one can carry from school to home, from office to office to hotel room, without requiring the user to lug a big notebook computer.
All the features enabled in a typical iPad -- although this one is Android 4.0-based -- are crammed into this USB stick. It includes operating system, optical navigation user interface, wireless (3G/4G), WiFi, Webcam connectivity and HD DVD decoding capabilities.
Simply by plugging the ÁPad device into a USB port in the back of a flat panel TV, a dumb TV suddenly gets "smart," allowing kids, for example, to play "Angry Bird" on a big screen, watch high-definition movies downloaded from the Internet or even online through broadband, surf the Web or check e-mail.
Without having to turn one's large-screen into a large touch-screen panel, the optical navigation also facilitates large-screen e-mail and files with a virtual (although somewhat cumbersome) keyboard that pops up on-screen.
Gao presented an almost flawless demo in his office, but wouldn't let EE Times photograph his prototype. Nor would he reveal an estimate of the bill of materials. He's saving his big splash for a later date.
If ÁPad does emerge as a hit product, one thing is clear. This is a quintessentially Chinese story. Apexone was in the right place - Shanghai - to locally source pretty much every component that goes inside the ÁPad, including an ARM-based application processor. Gao can locally manufacture the hardware systems, quickly, and at a moment when every system OEM/ODM's attention is directed at China.
Designing a product like ÁPad, however, is no small feat. The biggest challenge has been managing heat dissipation, according to Gao. All the multimedia features of a smartphones and more are packed in this tiny device. On the ÁPad, HD video decoding, for example, is carried out not by an apps processor but by separate hardwired chip in order to enhance video quality transferred to a large screen TV, said Gao. But as the movie rolls along, a ÁPad can get hot, he added.
Another challenge is that the device is based on Android. "Android is not known as the most stable platform," said Gao. Perhaps even harder is making sure ÁPad works with every TV set (with USB slot) using different BIOS, operating systems, screen sizes and resolution, designed by different brands. Of course, this isn't uncharted territory for Apexone.
James Gao, Apexone founder, president and CEO, in his office in Shanghai
Sounds like a consumer applicaiton of the ad hoc standard Lexar and others pushed a few years ago for running executable code from a USB flash drive so people could carry their computing to any network computer.
I agree, Rick. This is something many people talked about in the past, but never materialized.
I think the new twists of this whole thing are the progress of Android; proliferation of USB port (in a TV); an optical navigation device Gao talks about; angling to bring in more entertainment content from the Internet, etc. so that this can be played on the consumer mass market front.
Gao tells me that his kids don't play with iPad any more, using muPad to play the game on a big screen.
This does sound very similar to FXITech's "Cotton Candy" USB pc. They are about to start shipping pre-orders. I guess muPad's point of difference may be its optical navigation interface if it is user friendly enough.
I suppose we could see a variety of different USB pc options in the near future depending who holds what patent?
Wow, it seems the muPad is a very amazing device. What is more important is this company which has only 40 people is already a $1B company! It is so encouraging to see Chinese startup can have such a great innovation and even own so many patents!
Hi, GREAT-Terry. Sorry, I probably didn't make it clear in the story. This company has NOT reached a $1 billion revenue goal. It's the goal every Chinese fabless ia gunning for. But the point is that while his company has not achieved that yet, Gao doesn't see it being his end game.
I want one! Two years ago! Way to go, Apexone.
Since the TV application was mentioned explicitly, imagine what the supposedly "connected TV" vendors will think of this. A thumb drive to really make their "barely connected" TVs truly "connected."
I'm unclear on how the keyboard feature works, especially because it doesn't require a touchscreen, but to me that's details. However it works now, more than likely modifications can be made to fit each use case.
they shrunk the raspberry:
been eyeing one of these:
This is not really a new concept other than navigation, but it really does not completely solve the user interface which is the issue. Yes it has a level of optical navigation (where?? -- it is a USB thumb drive plugged somewhere not easily accessible). So to that end, while I think it will have some level of success, I question how much. It does have the same issue as other computing devices .... obsolete as soon as it is built.
Of course, there is that other issue. What are the odds that someone will own this device, but not own a smartphone that is likely newer, faster, etc? Perhaps the real market is better phone to TV connectivity?
good point. sounds like this device is a ipad without screen. it is better add phone function to be a smart phone. i believe it is very helpful for travel entertainment, but may not be good for home entertainment. if kids want to play video game, probably wii, ps3 or xbox is much better. i believe this is a good technolony, but could be applied in more area. let's brainstorming for Gao.
I think it has applicability for home entertainment too. I've had to dedicate a PC to my TV and sound system at home, in order to get true "connectivity." What the so-called "connected TVs" should, but do not, provide. There's a lot of radio and TV content on the web these days. Content that the "connected TVs" available on store shelves cannot access.
Possibly, a device like this one could have taken the place of the PC.
not quite, i'm chatting with two minipc vendors in Shenzhen now. the device only has 4GB storage so you will need a server for storage to say the least. this is more like mini-player for your TV. if TV has android/etc built-in you really don't need this small STB. I think it's useful for Kiosk though.
Yes, avid game fans would naturally resort to game consoles. But the beauty of this concept is in enabling TVs to download and run apps.
When I recently asked a Taiwanese TV chip vendor how they define "smart TV" versus any other TV, they had a very clear answer. The difference is, they said, whether your TV can download and run apps that are proliferating everywhere these days.
MS Kinect connection anyone? ... I own a Google Revue (Android based) on my 46" LCD TV ... not bad, as it does a lot (games, music/video streaming, wireless, hackable!). However, I have two problems with it: (1) resolution when Web browsing and (2) interface. I can get around #1 by zooming in, but I have to do this constantly. #2 - interface is a bit more troubling. It is a 3/4 keyboard with a mouse pad. It is OK and gets the job done, but what I would really like is an MS Kinect interface, so that I can use hand gestures to manipulate movement (scroll, zoom in/out) and select items. Any device that connects to the TV - namely Pocket TV and uPad - would seem to suffer the same interface issues.
How different is this from a Roku or an AppleTV, especially once both of those start supporting 3rd party apps ? Seems like both of those enable abroad swath of connected TV and have a pretty good price point (less than 100$), plus have the interoperability all figured out (HDMI).
All I see on their website for "optical navigation" is the module that goes into a normal optical mouse ie an led and a low resolution camera sensor to see which way textures are moving on a table etc. Is the navigation device just a mouse with a long wire, or bluetooth, or wifi?
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