Embedded technology: Consumer electronics secret weapon

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.

As with previous CES extravaganzas, such MCU-based and wirelessly-enabled dedicated devices outnumber the bigger ticket items by a ratio of about 100 to 1. Some of the introductions introduced at this year’s show focused on serious home networking and automation and medical apps   but many others, as Sylvie Barack chronicles in “CES unveiled… unveiled ,“  – are outright silly and odd.

But as I learned prowling around with an embedded designer at previous CESes, for all of that, they often exhibit an amazing array of new ideas and new twists on protocols, methodologies and technologies.

If a smart developer is able to spot them and figure out the “secret sauce” that makes them work it is often possible to come up with ideas that end up as mainstream building blocks in future higher ticket consumer and mobile systems. Some Embedded.com design articles that illustrate the technology in such systems include:

How capacitive sensing can reduce standby power in household appliances
Picking the right technologies for your home network design
Building wireless M2M & IoT sensor networks: issues and challenges
Design of an ARM Intelligent Monitoring System Using Zigbee

The embedded communications infrastructure
Beyond that are the really invisible network infrastructure designs embedded developers are involved in from the MIMO-based wireless LTE base-stations to the 10 to 100s of GB/s data flow multicore network routers and switches that bring the content to the consumer devices. Some design articles on Embedded.com that illustrate such challenges, include:

Tuning the baseband-to-radio connection for wireless basestations
Adding 3G Radio to Embedded Devices: Five Steps to Success
The key to realizing full multicore network design functionality
Pick the right multicore virtualization use case for your network design

In addition are a number of Embedded Vision modalities and tools to bring the power of digital signal processing to create consumer electronics devices and systems “see,”   opening up an entirely new range of new user interface possibilities on not only consumer devices but automotive systems as well.

More embedded challenges to come
And in the labs at universities and research centers are a variety of designs that will test the abilities of embedded developers. Some recent papers and conference presentations I’ve found that illustrate the capability of such future systems include:

Heterogeneous multi-core platform for consumer multimedia apps
M2M From mobile to embedded internet
MEMS sensors for advanced mobile applications
3D Hand Gesture Recognition Based on Sensor Fusion
A gesture recognizer for devices with 3D acceleration sensors
A multitouch system for intuitive 3D scene navigation
Continuous realtime gesture following and recognition

These are all areas of ongoing interest on Embedded.com and I look forward to hearing from you about your ideas and experiences developing such systems with some of the new tools and protocols available as well as what kind of content you would like to see that would make it easier for you to do your job.

Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is also editor of the twice-a-week Embedded.com newsletters as well as a partner in the TechRite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Send an email to , or call 928-525-9087.

See more articles and column like this one on Embedded.com .Sign up for the Embedded.com newsletters . Copyright © 2012 UBM–All rights reserved.

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