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CES 2014: Past Is Prologue for Electronics Design

Comments(2)Filed under: Cadence, EDA tools, Tensilica, Brian Fuller, EDA vendors, microprocessor design, consumer electronics design, CES, Cisco, Consumer Electronics Show, Consumer Electronics, WiFi, wireless communications, chip design, John Chambers, CES 2014

We are tempted to view the annual Consumer Electronics Show as a peek at electronics design's future. It's not. It's a view into the past, since the systems on display at CES 2014 in Las Vegas had their design starts 12-18 months ago.

Inada DreamWave massage chair

This year there wasn't any white-hot "big tech." Those types of consumer systems seemed to have hit an inspiration wall. Consider some of the top CES 2014 technologies, as identified by USA Today (and others):

  • Curved TVs
  • 4K (ultra-HD) TVs
  • Wearable electronics
  • Connected cars
  • Connected home

There were also robots everywhere, new tablet designs, networked toothbrushes, patient-monitoring devices for the elderly, and devices to track the PH level in a cow's stomach.

Each of these is unarguably an engineering achievement, but they give us little insight into the big design engineering challenges ahead. For example:

  • Curved TVs is a form factor issue; interesting and functional from a sound-quality viewpoint, but life-altering...?
  • 4K TVs (3840 pixels × 2160) offer eye-popping clarity, but is that much more compelling than existing 1080p HD? (Plus for widespread adoption of such sets, the content creation infrastructure needs to be radically upgraded to 4K and the timing of that seems implausible since the recent widespread adoption of HD).
  • Wearable electronics has upside as a technology, but it's been on the drawing board since the 1990s (Industry veterans may recall EE Times' OEM Magazine cover story on the "Pret-a-porter PC" from that decade). At CES 2014, wearable was largely defined as smart watches, which at the moment are essentially smart phones worn on your wrist.
  • The connected car has discussed for several years now, and various brands are slowly implementing app-based software architectures and interfaces in their vehicle infotainment systems. Still, safety and usability concerns remain.

CES 2014 automotive technologyThe biggest challenge for connected automobiles, however, may be an intractable one: The skew between the expected design and life cycle of a vehicle (roughly seven years) and the life cycle of a consumer-electronics product (12-18 months).

Elmar Frickenstein, BMW's chief of EVP Electrics and Electronics, summed up the challenge during a CES 2014 panel: "I don't see any solution. We need your help."

CES 2014: Old is new again

So, this year at CES 2014, it was hard to extrapolate much from products. But we could extrapolate electronics-design challenges from words—words from keynoters and panelists.

What's going to be big? The same thing that's driven us for three decades: wireless communications.

Scott Pomerantz, a general manager of wireless connectivity at Broadcom, said during a CES 2014 panel session that 3.5 billion 5G WiFi devices will ship in the next four years. (The source of that number, ABI Research, predicted last summer that  802.11ac will explode into devices, including smartphones, from the start while 802.11ad will see a more modest and staggered growth). 

'Crush of heterogeneousness' 

Vish Nandlall, chief technology officer for Ericsson North America, moved up a level to describe wireless design's future:

"As we move to Internet of Things, there's going to be a whole sea change of technologies from the wireless perspective. We're going to need a better grid... something that's low energy, connectivity so sensors can stay in place longer on the same battery. New use cases are going to drive research and technology; it's going to be many, many different types of access technologies and there will be a crush of heterogeneousness."

He went on to paint a picture of dense, powerful new networks that get more efficient through better bandwidth and technology deployment such as multiplexing and MIMO (multiple-in, multiple out) antennae (e.g., 802.11ac). (EE Times's Jessica Lipsky has a helpful write-up of this CES 2014 panel session).

Cisco CEO John Chambers talked up IoT again (what Cisco calls the Internet of Everything), and this time offered a breathtaking number: $19 trillion. That's the expected economic impact of IoT in the coming years.

Pushing ahead

As the year progresses, there will be product surprises, no doubt. There always are, but the key design drivers continue to be what they have been for some time: performance, integration, power-optimization.

CES 2014 HDSX audio demoThis requires more IP design, reuse, integration, and verification. Consider speakers: not a sexy technology for the average consumer; but for engineers, an energizing challenge (and, yes, sexy too). Audio speakers are getting smaller and more powerful and they're getting integrated into more diverse end systems. At the silicon level, expect more miniaturization of course, but advances in the use of software on DSPs to enhance sound quality and save energy.

Our friends in the Cadence IP group who had a booth at CES 2014 (photo, right) were big on small speakers, and they used the buzz around the event to announce the licensing of the full suite of MPEG AAC codecs from Fraunhofer IIS for use with the Tensilica HiFi DSP. Cadence plans to use the products to enhance the library of over 100 audio/voice software packages optimized for the HiFi DSP family. 

What's big is increasingly small

It could be that we're not seeing mind-blowing "big" technologies from CES 2014 because the times don't favor them. Uncertain macroeconomic winds still blow around the globe. This environment calls for optimization, more productivity, doing (and designing) more with less. Consumers are still cost conscious and this puts downward pressure on electronics design BOMs.

But that won't last forever. Once the economy shakes off the vestiges of the downturn, the next wave of innovation will be like nothing we've ever seen.

(All photos courtesy Corrie Callenbach, Cadence) 

Brian Fuller

Related stories:

- CES 2014 Live Blog Feed

- Technology and Electronics Design Innovation: Big Things, Small Packages

- 2013: Quickening the Pace of Electronics Innovation? 

Cadence at CES 2014: Live Blog, Tensilica IP Demos, and More

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