Before we plunge into the fray with gusto and abandon, we should note that there are two distinct parts to this story. First, we have the low-power IGLOO FPGAs from the guys and gals at Actel
; second, we have a mega-cool demonstration and development board from the chaps and chappesses at Attodyne
"Why does the name Attodyne sound familiar?" I hear you cry. Well, do you remember the cover story on the 6 August 2007 issue of EE Times about an 8-year-old boy called Carson Page designing with FPGAs? As fate would have it, young Carson is a "Chip of the Old Block," because he's the son of Attodyne's president, Ray Page.
But we digress. . . the ever-increasing popularity of devices such as personal media players, personal navigation equipment, PDAs, digital cameras, cell phones, and suchlike is driving a major surge in the use of LCDs. The fastest growing segment of this market is in small-to-medium (sub-10-inch) displays. In fact, according to market analyst firm iSupply, total LCD unit shipments are expected to grow from 3.8 billion in 2007 to 4.5 billion in 2011.
Trends in the use of portable LCD displays.
The LCD – along with any devices controlling it – can easily consume up to 50 percent of the application's total power budget. The lowest power controlling devices available are ASICs/ASSPs, but these suffer from a number of major disadvantages, including huge development costs, long design times, and the fact that any algorithms implemented in an ASIC are essentially "frozen-in-silicon". This latter point is of particular significance, because display standards and protocols are constantly evolving.
Actel's low-power IGLOO FPGAs
And so we come to Actel's low-power IGLOO Flash-based FPGAs, which offer a low-power active mode, a Flash*Freeze mode, and a sleep mode. These devices can be quickly reprogrammed to adapt and support a wide variety of LCD displays and rapidly changing technologies; they can be used to absorb surrounding "glue-logic" devices so as to reduce board real estate requirements; and they have the capacity and performance to embed more complex LCD controls.
Using an IGLOO FPGA to implement a simple LCD controller.
The Flash*Freeze mode is of particular interest when one considers that many handheld device displays are required to be active for only a portion of the time, but that they need to be quickly accessible when required by the user. Within 1 microsecond (µs) – and using a single control pin – an IGLOO device can easily enter and exit its Flash*Freeze mode in which it consumes as little as 5µW while retaining the contents of the system memory and data registers. As a result, the flash-based IGLOO FPGA can enable both the LCD panel and the controller to function in a power-saving mode and the LCD data and backlight to be disabled, representing significant battery savings for LCD applications.
Using IGLOO's Flash*Freeze mode.
Also of interest for the size- and weight-constrained handheld market is the fact that IGLOO FPGAs are available in a variety of packaging options, the smallest of which is only 4 mm × 4 mm.
IGLOO packages can be as small as 4 mm × 4 mm.
Attodyne's IGLOO-based video demonstration-development board
Of course, it's one thing to have access to low-cost, low-power FPGAs like the IGLOO family, but knowing how to use them to their best advantage is another story. This is where the folks at Attodyne leap into the picture. Attodyne is a design services company that specializes in video processing algorithms, LCD display technology, and the use of Actel FPGAs (I love it when a plan comes together). In particular, they have developed a suite of extremely power-efficient IP cores that take full advantage of IGLOO FPGAs.
All of which brings us to Attodyne's new video demonstration-development kit, which leverages the power of an Actel IGLOO AGL600 to process video signals for LCD displays. The video input to the IGLOO Video Demonstration Kit can be from multiple sources, such as a CMOS camera headboard or a DVI-D input. The main board can drive the LCD panel through a 50-pin onboard connector or from an LVDS interface through the two RJ45 connectors for Panel Standardization Working Group (PSWG) -compliant single-/dual-channel standard panels.
Initially, three LCD adapter boards will be made available to demonstrate advanced LCD controller features, such as image downscaling, alpha blending, color conversion and de-interlacing. These boards include a 7-inch, 4.3-inch or 2.7-inch LCD panel with resolutions ranging from 320 × 240 (QVGA) to 480 × 800 (WVGA). The adaptor boards include the appropriate connectors, drivers and inverters to the LCD and interfaces with the main IGLOO Video Demo Board.
Initially, three LDC adapter boards will be available
for use with the main board.
The IGLOO Video Demo Kit (IVDK) combines the Video Demo board with an LCD adaptor board, software and demo, power supply and DVI-D cables to enable users to rapidly start building their LCD controller applications.
The really interesting part of the story
Over the last few days, I've spent quite a lot of time chatting to Ray Page, the president of Attodyne, and we've become "chums" (you know you've moved beyond a boring old business-only relationship when someone calls you at home on a Sunday afternoon to ask you to look at something cool on their website).
Ray is an "engineer's engineer". He knows what he likes and what he doesn't like, and he's committed to making sure that Attodyne doesn't do the things that he doesn't like other folks to do . . . if you see what I mean.
For example, Ray really dislikes spending vast amounts of time rooting around someone else's website desperately trying to discover how much a piece of IP is going to cost him. Thus, if you go to the "IP Cores" section of the Attodyne site, you'll see the price of each AttoCORE displayed for all to see.
Ray also doesn't like paying through the nose for IP – who does? He would much rather pay a reasonable price that doesn't make him cry – who wouldn't? Thus, Attodyne's current IP core portfolio ranges from only $299 to $799 depending on the complexity of the function. This is for a gate-level netlist version of the IP core (there's a "multiplier" for an RTL source-level representation) for single project use and it's royalty free.
But the really interesting part of the story is that Ray really, REALLY doesn't like paying for IP, only to find that it doesn't do what he needs. As Ray says:
Traditionally, project engineers have been forced to make high-risk decisions relating to the use of third-party IP cores. Up-front licensing fees raise the stakes when the project is experimental. Additional project delays are incurred waiting for management to
sign off on risky budgets and for legal teams to approve license agreements.
In order to address this, Attodyne has just introduced its patent-pending AttoLOCK technology, which allows engineers to freely download, experiment, and develop with the netlist versions of Attodyne's AttoCOREs.
AttoLOCK works by embedding a tiny amount of code in each IP netlist core. A single
signal from each core connects to a single AttoKEY net that unlocks the cores. For security reasons, the AttoKEY module is currently only available on Attodyne's development boards in the form of a small pre-programmed Actel flash FPGA.
Leveraging AttoLOCK, Attodyne plans to offer its entire line of existing and future AttoCORE IP
netlist cores for free download as each core become available. Once the customer's design
concept is proven using one of Attodyne's development boards, standard "unlocked" representations of the cores can be licensed for a small fee.
Pricing and availability
The IGLOO Video Demo Kit (IVDK) comprising the IGLOO Video Demo Board, the LCD adaptor boards, and a range of display-related reference blocks will be available from Attodyne mid-January 2008. For pricing information, please contact Attodyne at www.attodyne.com