April 2011

HD and 3D Buried in the Chip: Embedded Systems Go More Visual


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I think it may be the integrated graphics. Embedded systems have broken out of their preconceived roles as industrial controls, instruments, transportation systems, toaster and microwave controllers, automotive systems, sensor networks, robotics, small data acquisition and a million other applications into even wider territory. And if it seemed that embedded intelligence was permeating every aspect of daily life, it’s getting even bigger.

When someone at a social gathering used to ask me what I did, the very next question was “What is an embedded system?” My standard answer was a short explanation summed up by the quip that it involved, “Hiding the computer behind its own usefulness.” In other words, the user of a device like a microwave oven or a gas pump was supposed to simply use it based on its functionality and not even be aware that an embedded processor was doing all the work behind the scenes.

Such systems could be headless or have a user interface. Of course even most headless systems, such as an automotive controller, do have a user interface. But in the case of the car, that interface is the wheel, accelerator, brake and transmission that we are familiar with from the stick shift days. They just hook up to the processor buried beneath. In the case of embedded systems with user interfaces, they have until now been mostly buttons or a small touch screen. 

Now enter a new generation of embedded processors with high-quality 3D graphics integrated on-chip as exemplified by the Atom family from Intel and the recently announced G Series from AMD. These babies can give you full HD streaming audio and video over an HDMI interface or interactive 3D graphics rendering. Suddenly we’re not talking small touch screens anymore. We’re talking big touch screens, touch screens with compelling interactive graphics, graphics that can be buried in small devices but talk to big displays. This is no longer hiding the computer behind its own usefulness. This is putting that usefulness in your face.

At the same time it is stretching the definition of what we once comfortably thought of as a distinction between consumer electronics and industrial electronics. Consumer electronics were what consumers consciously used for the inherent electronic functionality of the products: TVs, cell phones, home audio equipment, set top boxes and PCs. Industrial electronics comprised all that stuff that was hidden or had application in stages of service or production that are “pre-consumer”—manufacturing, street lights, etc.

The availability of high-end graphics and video on a small form factor module is bound to accelerate the effects of what is (not well) known as Williams’ Law of Technology Utilization, which clearly states that the originator of a technology does not have the vaguest idea of how it will ultimately be used. Turn this stuff loose into the world and see what happens. Previously unknown applications of embedded intelligence, such as digital signage (is that industrial or consumer?), which have just started to emerge, will get a tremendous boost from such capabilities. High quality imaging on all manner of medical equipment down to small handheld devices will be greatly enhanced. Things as seemingly mundane as POS systems where you can order from a display in the top of your restaurant table, casino gaming systems, kiosk systems and many more will grow from the capability of the technology unleashing the creativity of the developers.

Then think about what may have been considered those stodgy old industrial systems. Wouldn’t it be nice to actually be able to see what a machine tool is doing, or to bring the model created by the CAD system right onto the factory floor? Humans are visual animals, so I predict that the ability to interact with all kinds of applications through the medium of a visual model will take these models from where they currently reside, namely the development space in things like visual mathematical models or physical models, and enable them to be used as the actual user interfaces for small embedded devices as well.

At the same time our everyday lives will be increasingly touched by visual displays all around us coming from devices and systems that were once hidden but are increasingly in our awareness and beckoning us to interact with them. And a huge amount of this visual content will be available from anywhere by means of the web. These projections are, of course, only small attempts to see the potential. Be prepared to be amazed.