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With so much attention focused on the Playstation and Wii game systems these days, ZapIt was able to come under the radar with a game box suited more for the whole family than just the younger generation. The Game Wave is like Trivial Pursuit on steroids, with a DVD player thrown in for fun.
The game's developers wanted to create an interactive board game-type console that families could use to play classic card games like Blackjack, with six remote controls and embedded DVD playback for watching movies.
The target retail price for the system was $99. Hence, the target cost to manufacture the product in China had to be around $50. The design team at Nytric came close enough to maintain the $99 retail price. The system is actually in stores now for roughly $80.
"We needed a very low-cost media processor that could do MPEG playback, yet still had enough resources that would allow us to program the games," said Jon Clarke, head of Nytric's hardware design team. "In addition, we wanted an integrated DVD navigator so we could process the DVD VOB files to handle playback of commercial movies."
Processors specific to Windows CE were evaluated, but they were too expensive. There also were licensing issues, and significant memory-management, RAM and ROM requirements.
Nytric eventually chose the Mediamatics 8611 for its OSD graphics capability, its sound-playback features, the availability of a parser for processing commercial DVDs, and Nytric's ability to write custom source. Since Mediamatics was purchased by National Semiconductor, both logos are on the IC code.
The design team initially had looked at a microprocessor from STMicroelectronics. The problem was, the DVD processors evaluated performed one specific function--namely, operating a DVD player. The designers needed more functionality while still benefiting from the cost economies of the high-volume DVD players.
Opening the source-code door
Not many vendors were willing to open up their software for custom development, partly because most of their support was coming from outside North America. The deal-breaker with STMicroelectronics involved licensing.
"We made a case to National Semi in March of 2004," says Av Utukuri, CEO of Nytric. "We wrote a PC version of the game play, like an emulator, to document how the game would work. We flew down to National to pitch them on supporting us. The process seemed backward, like they should be pitching us, but that's what it took to get the deal done."
The designers took the opportunity to do performance testing on the Mediamatics part. The processor had its limitations, but it also had the necessary functionality. Nytric also got the pricing and support it needed.
CPLD helps connect the dots
The Mediamatics part required an Altera CPLD, the MAX II (Data Sheet, Technical Paper), to marry the processor to the DVD drive. Nytric's Clarke said this was one of the primary challenges.
"When a Samsung or a Sanyo makes a drive head and there's an interface chip for that drive head, you need glue logic to convert that data into the standard format that the Mediamatics chip is expecting," he said.
The first prototype was ready in October 2004, which was used to start proving out the board and the concept. Then the software team got into the act.
The design team ran into a problem when the Sanyo drive they had originally designed in was discontinued, and no other company would produce an identical drive. This required a redesign.
An Atapi loader was designed in, similar to the interface used in a PC to connect the DVD drive. Atapi is a 16-bit interface and was not supported by the Mediamatics part.
So, in conjunction with National and Altera, the Nytric designers developed a programmable part that converted the Atapi commands in a byte format to a format that the 8611's 8-bit AV bus could handle.
The remaining components came from the original design, including SRAM and 2 Mbytes of NOR flash memory. Both memory components push the limit of what the Mediamatics processor can support. The 16-Mbyte SRAM was the least expensive single-package part the designers could find. A compressed version of National's "navigator," which lets the user play standard DVDs and navigate through the disk's menus, resides within the flash.
The remaining key components are a two-channel audio D/A converter for stereo audio and an Atmel 1-million write-cycle serial E2PROM to store the point at which users stop a game.
Finally, a few gates and latches were needed because the CPLD didn't have enough I/O to handle all the address decoding. What remains are passives and regulators.
The remote controls presented another challenge, as all six could potentially be talking to the base platform simultaneously. While RF and AM modulation were considered, the cost factor brought the design team back to IR, where diodes sell for pennies.