Embedded technology: Consumer electronics secret weapon

January 11, 2013

Bernard Cole-January 11, 2013

If you attended the 2013 CES last week or were following it closely on the web, TV or radio, here is a question that should be easy for you to answer:

What do the following have in common? Personal computers. Mobile tablets and smartphones. Big ticket items such as web-enabled TVs. The hundreds of small dedicated consumer widgets at the show. Wireless base-stations, IPv6-enabled wired Internet-backbone servers and routers. Wired and wirelessly enabled home networks. Sensor-enhanced home automation systems.

The answer: They all represent enormous opportunities – and challenges – for developers of embedded systems and devices. In different ways they represent the critical under-pinning of the various devices that attract the consumers’ attention and dollars.

And the ability of embedded systems developers to continue to improve the hidden and invisible infrastructure upon which the consumer electronics systems and devices depend will determine the success or failure of consumer electronics as a market that drives the world economy.

Anything machines need embedded devices
General purpose “anything machine” desktop computers, and their mobile tablet and smartphone clones as the main personal computing platforms of choice are, of course, not embedded systems.

But as with desktop computers, even mobile tablets and smartphones are home to anywhere from half a dozen to several tens of embedded MCUs that offload the many deterministic and real time gesture and touch interface operations and management chores involved in USB, I2C and other serial connections between peripheral functions and the main system.

In addition to some of the recent articles that were included in this week’s “Tech Focus: Embedded opportunities and challenges in consumer electronics,” that illustrate this trend, my Editor’s Top Picks of other relevant design articles, webinars and technical papers that delve into topic in more detail include:

Capacitive sensing for advanced user interfaces
USB 3.0: What embedded software developers need to know
Embedded design energy efficiency with lower power LCD operation 
The mechanics of capacitive touch sensor interfaces

Embedding sensors

According to Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and senior director of research at CEA, who spoke at a briefing at the International CES last week, one of the big stories of the conference this year is “sensorization,” not only of the mobile, smartphone and desktop systems, but of the many wirelessly connected embedded devices on display at the conference.

DuBravac said that as the cost of sensors and their associated MCUs has dropped, many touch and gesture enabled smartphone and tablet system developers have been able to waste time on such resources by installing more than one sensor in electronic devices to enhance their capabilities.

But beyond their use in mobiles and PCs, he said, it is the ability of such MCU-powered embedded sensors to collect information from a variety of wirelessly connected devices and store it on cloud computing services that will open up a whole new range of consumer electronics services. In the near future, he said, various service providers in the healthcare industry are looking at ways to pool together their digital data on people's high blood pressure and overlay it over their smartphone calendars.

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