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.
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):
4K (ultra-HD) TVs
- 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
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.
The 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
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:
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.
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.
This 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)
- 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