The Changing Face of Embedded


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It doesn’t seem so long ago that when at some non-technical social event I was asked the question, “So what do you do?” my answer would inevitably be followed by, “Uh, what is embedded computing?” The answer to that last question has gotten more involved lately. Time was, you could get the idea across with some simple examples—factory automation, medical instruments, communication systems—and at least elicit an, “Oh yeah, right.” 

Today that is getting more complicated because what we once considered embedded systems are becoming more pervasive and are increasingly touching people’s daily lives in ways that are more direct than they once were. If the gas pump has an embedded processor behind it, that may escape notice because the pump still does what we are used to it doing—pumping gas and displaying the amounts. Never mind that you can also pay at the pump with your ATM card. We do that everywhere. The POS system is likewise a thing that has crept into all our lives without much fanfare. The fact that it is equipped with a bar code scanner networked to a database and also to the card processing system often is unremarkable.

But when things that were formerly inanimate objects begin to interact with us, we do notice. The rapid spread of digital signage that is increasingly able to interact with the person viewing it gets people’s attention as something new in the world. The emergence of bar or restaurant tables whose surfaces are an interactive graphical touch screen display that can bring up a menu and is also able to sense if your drink is low, is something that brings the existence of embedded intelligence to our general consciousness in ways that are definitely noticed.

And we need hardly mention the staggering number and functionality of smartphones, special-and general-purpose tablets, and e-readers, all of which are subsumed in a seemingly seamless web of connectivity. Now many of these devices bleed over into what is called “consumer electronics,” which is outside the prevue of RTC. Discussions of the design of smartphones and TVs definitely belong somewhere else, but the lines have blurred just a bit because these things are increasingly knit together in an ever growing web of wired and wireless connectivity that spans the factory floor, the electric utility, the private home and a plethora of mobile devices, including autonomous and semi-autonomous machine-to-machine systems of all sorts.

Driving these trends is the sheer computational power that is available on low-cost, low-power silicon. Integrated on this new silicon is not only compute power, but also high-end graphics and connectivity. As our friends Colin and Paul point out in this issue’s SFF Forum, the compute power makes it possible to use operating systems like Windows, Linux and Android in systems with all but the tightest timing requirements. And even there, the option exists to use an RTOS for real-time on one core of a multicore processor and one of the others on another core. Add to that the 3D graphics capability on chips such as the new Fusion G-Series from AMD, and we have high-end GUIs for even the most embedded applications. It is now literally possible to monitor and control industrial processes using a smartphone.

The other major element of the changing face of embedded is the surge in connectivity. The combination of the Internet with its attendant “Cloud,” the Smart Grid with its integral network, Wi-Fi, mesh networks like ZigBee and the 4G/LTE cellular build-out will soon usher in the era of ubiquitous connectivity. This infrastructure will connect devices in industry, transportation, medical and other commercial fields with people and devices in individual homes. Many of these will, of course, be consumer devices. But the growing digital infrastructure and the attached computing power along with what will be increasingly intuitive graphical user interfaces will tend to meld them into an interactive whole.

The person in their kitchen using a GUI to set the dishwasher (a consumer device) to monitor the utility network (a major industrial system) to turn on when the rates are favorable is part of a larger interaction. The utility monitors overall usage to see if it must invoke demand response agreements with large industrial and commercial users to limit their usage to agreed levels. This will in turn affect when the rates change and when the dishwasher ultimately turns on. 

Today we track UPS and FedEx shipments at home—an activity that is only made possible by a vast array of M2M systems with GPS and RFID capability interacting over high-speed networks. Such systems were, of course, developed to aid the shippers, but the addition of customer access is a definite bonus in terms of customer satisfaction. We can expect the spread of high-end GUIs and universal connectivity to result in many more such examples great and small.