Buyers and sellers alike benefited from the latest Embedded Systems Conference. Vendors noted the sometimes light floor traffic but contrasted it with a higher level of interested and knowledgeable attendees. Meanwhile, those who kicked the tires were interested in buying. The size of the show and the variety of vendors was a plus, and attendees I chatted with said they burned a good bit of shoe leather. Many stopped by the show booths not only for more detailed product overviews but also to cool their heels. They said the ability to talk about shipping products rather than planned technology was appealing. Breakout sessions took away from floor traffic, making the show floor sometimes feel more like a technical seminar where traffic varied depending on when class let out. The combination of ESC and the ZigBee Developer’s Conference probably exacerbated this effect. Since ZigBee remains a hot topic that’s somewhat misunderstood, more people checked out the seminars to find out what it’s all about. To the media, the show could be overwhelming. A deluge of new announcements came at or just before the show. In many cases, the number of product variants was larger than last year. For example, Ampro had new COM Express, PC/104 and PCI-104 boards. Connect One had new chips and a Serial-to-WiFi Module targeted at machine-to-machine (M2M) applications. Check out the product review links for details on those and more. ESC 2007 Trends While processing, wireless and FPGAs stole most of the spotlight, one recurring comment from hardware vendors were the impacts of RoHS. While companies seem to be adapting to the directive smoothly, cost and progress have been affected significantly. Participants said RoHS has slowed general progress by at least two years, which is especially noticeable in the emergence of new technologies. In processing, passive bus architectures like PC/104 remain the front runner but point-to-point technologies like PCI Express are coming on strong. The latter is key to new, multicore processor platforms, but even the ISA bus remains in demand. RoHS has actually been pushing some developers forward since so many products are being moved into end-of-life. Multicore seems to be forcing operating system vendors into providing ARINC-style partitioned systems as well as virtual machine (VM) support. There were more software vendors highlighting these enhancements this year than last. They noted that the support was not targeted at heavy duty, DO-179B-style applications, but rather at commercial and even consumer applications. While it’s been a solution for many applications, it remains to be seen whether this approach will be the answer to security and reliability woes. It is a testimony to standards and interoperability that wireless demos throughout the hall were actually working. Almost every other booth had some kind of wireless platform running—from 802.11b/g/n to 802.15.4/ZigBee. Ostensibly, that’s because the availability of chips is no longer a problem and the software is in surplus. That, however, gave attendees a confusing set of choices, heightening an expected level of integration. For example, Rabbit Semiconductor’s RCM4400W board combines a 29.49MHz Rabbit 4000 with an 802.11b/g module. The matching RCM5410W uses a different MaxStream ZigBee wireless module.
Another noticeable trend was the increasing number of FPGAs found on boards not destined for communications or military use. It is changing the way digital IO is being delivered. Of course there were plenty of new FPGAs and FPGA development software. Altium was showing off its new modular NanoBoard 2 and a matching portable unit that can be used to demo or deliver FPGA-based solutions built using the NanoBoard 2. I did see some novel demos like QuickLogic’s FPGA demo board. The board had sockets of half a dozen FPGAs that each drive an LCD display. The driver chips for the latter were powered independently while the FPGAs ran off capacitors. The demo charged the capacitors and then let the counters programmed into the FPGA run free. A higher output number indicated a larger number of calculations possible with the associated FPGA. Of course, you know whose FPGA result was the highest, at least for this demo. One of the most popular spectacles, of course, was the teardown. Everything from a Prius to a Lego Mindstorm robot was torn to pieces for the entertainment and education of attendees. I was wondering whether they were going to start disassembling the booths to see what made the demos run. ESC Visuals More robots darted around the floor than ever before, but the applications tended to be similar to those on display in the past. The difference this year was how long it took to create the demos and the growing levels of sophistication. National Instrument’s (NI) robotic arm took longer to build than to program. Of course, NI’s LabView made this possible, which is what the demo was designed to show. Optical recognition was combined with ultrasonic range finding. We’ll see next year if the robot can take the cylinders it put into a box and put them back onto the table. Robots were handy for showing off real-time capabilities of hardware. STmicroelectronics’ ARM7 was powering this autonomous vehicle. The big difference with most of these new demos is that they are based on off-the-shelf boards. Robots, teardowns—were there any surprises? None that I found. Notes from some behind-closed-doors demos will be released in a couple of months, but the show mainly revealed the expected incremental improvements. It seems to be time to take a collective breath and work with the hardware and software that’s been delivered. MIPS will go up, power requirements will go down, and long-term hardware commitments will again be the norm. Surprises will have to wait until next year. Related links Embedded Systems Conference Altium Ampro Connect One National Instruments QuickLogic Rabbit Semiconductor STmicroelectronics