I touched upon the Soniqcast Aireo (see Fig. 1) in a recent EiED Online article entitled Keeping A Secret (ED Online ID 8495). The discussion centered around wireless security more than how the Aireo was designed. This time around I was able to interview Gary Stein, Lead Hardware Designer, SoniqCast. He provides insights into how SoniqCast was able to quickly turn an innovative architecture into a real product.
For those unfamiliar with the Aireo, I provide a quick overview of its features. The Aireo has a USB port, SD flash memory card slot, 1.5Gbyte hard drive, an FM receiver/transmitter, and 802.11b adapter (see Fig. 2). The hard disk can store music or data. Connect the Aireo to a PC via the USB cable and the operating system has access the hard disk as a removable drive.
The 802.11b adapter turns a PC into a personal broadcast station. Songs on the PC can be automatically downloaded to the Aireo's hard disk on a timed basis, usually each evening. The FM transmitter provides a way to connect the Aireo to a car radio or boom box.
Packing all this hardware into a compact package is no easy task. Gary provides some insight into how this came about and what kind of hardware and software is inside the Aireo.
Electronic Design: Tell us a little about Soniqcast and the design history of the Aireo.
Gary Stein: SoniqCast LLC was formed in 2003 to develop and bring to market entertainment products with a leading-edge paradigm-wireless connectivity. The Aireo is the first such product, being the world's first (and still only) portable MP3 player with embedded 802.11 technology. The Aireo idea was conceived in 2002 by SoniqCast president Kurt Thielen; the SoniqCast team formed and entered development in 2003. The Aireo was introduced at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show, being a Best of Show finalist. Retail sales of the Aireo commenced shortly thereafter.
The Aireo hardware, software, and industrial design was all done by SoniqCast in the USA; volume manufacturing is done in Asia
ED: How did you arrive at the feature set?
Gary: The original feature set was determined by usage case studies. These studies addressed typical usage models, such as usage in a vehicle, usage while walking, office environment, wireless syncing, etc. Each model delivers a different set of feature optimizations. For example, usage in a docked environment such as a vehicle or desktop dock, minimizes the need for long battery life. Portable use when walking or jogging, however, requires the exact opposite. From these models a feature matrix allowed a set to be chosen that gave the broadest coverage across the multiple models. Of course, some features could not be optimized across all models.
Subsequent feature additions and tweaking came about through usability testing and feedback from beta unit reviewers.
ED: How did you choose and implement the system platform once the feature set was determined?
Gary: As the Aireo was the first into this space, we realized that many of the features and their implementation would require some amount of evolution. Likewise the standards that the product is based upon, 802.11, mp3, wma, digital rights management, etc. are ever changing. Thus a way of rapidly integrating new technologies and features on almost a mix and match basis dictated a very flexible platform. This led us to choose WinCE as the software platform. For the hardware, the Intel Xscale architecture is a natural choice under WinCE. Other mp3 platforms are based on propreitary hardware/software, which makes one dependent on the supplier to enable significant features.
ED: What are the key components (hardware or software) that made the Aireo possible, and which ones became available recently that made the Aireo possible?
Gary: Several items:
1. An open, low-cost platform as described above, enabled by WinCE 4.x and the Intel Xscale. While other OSes and processors could have sufficed, it's our belief that the Wintel combo offers an optimal combination of cost, size, and fast time to market.
2. Micro hard drives. The advent of low cost 1-inch HDDs under the $100 mark. The Aireo rode the first wave such HDDs introduced in late 03. This segment of the HDD market continues to expand in revenue and product variety.
3. Miniaturization and cost erosion of 802.11 technology, allowing embedded usage at a reasonable cost.
ED: How was the prototype developed and what type of design issues came up when migrating to the final product?
Gary: Evaluation platforms from Intel and 802.11 vendors allowed a rough facsimile of the platform to be created before first prototypes. This allowed software development to start early and skip a large form factor prototype; the first hardware prototypes were true form factor units. Two main issues were fought:
1. Design concurrency of the pc board and industrial design
1. The package design obviously determines the pc-board (pcb) outlines. Although both were developed in parallel, some amount of serial testing is necessary. Drop testing, for instance, can require a package change that affects the pcb outline and changes the layout. Thus package-design considerations, along with some prototype corrections, created a second hardware spin that was a significantly different layout. A final third spin for production was executed to clean up some minor manufacturing issues.
2. EMI/EMC in advanced portable products can be a significant challenge. High-clock-frequency processors are finding their way into these portable devices, where plastic always provides the enclosure rather than the metal typical of larger units: set-top boxes, DVD players, PCs, etc.
ED: What type of software and hardware development tools were employed to create the Aireo and its software?
Gary: Software development centers around Microsoft Platform Builder and its C++ compilers and debug facilities. There is some assembly code in the low-level boot loader that's easily integrated in this environment. Source-code revision control is maintained with CVS. An integrated build process is automated with internally developed scripts.
Defect tracking is handled with the BugAware system. The Aireo itself has various software debug capabilities including a debug serial comm port, a JTAG CPU emulator port, and a dump-to-non-volatile memory capability.
On the hardware front, the pcb tool flow is built around PADs products: PowerLogic for schematic capture and PowerPCB for pcb layout. The Xilinx toolset provides for VHDL/Verilog design, simulation and implementation in programmable logic. Spice was used for various analog simulations. In the lab, the normal complement of test equipment: digital oscilloscopes, logic analyzers, spectrum analyzers were used. Various audio PC-based audio analyzers address the sound analysis.
Spanning the gap between software and new, untested hardware was various evaluation boards from Intel and 802.11 vendors that allowed BSP and driver development before Aireo hardware was available.
Different aspects of mechanical design was done with different tools: AutoCad, Solidworks, and ProE.
ED: The Aireo comes with a small pamphlet to introduce the product, but the remaining documentation and all software is one the Aireo's hard-disk drive. How have customers taken to this form of distribution?
Gary: Some customers have expressed a degree of unfamilarity: Where's the CD? Once it is recognized where the documentation is, customers seem to find it a workable system.
ED: Aireo can automatically synch over an 802.11b wireless network using the SoniqSync application. Any thoughts on doing this across the Internet?
Gary: Are you referring to accessing one's own personal content library over the Internet or accessing commercial content sites?
The former requires a hosting capability on the home network to allow a VPN, ftp, or secure browser connection into the home network-capabilities that are beyond the reach of most users to configure. The latter requires a means of paying provider fees: the content provider and/or the carrier (hotspot) provider. Such payment could be on-demand or pre-established accounts. The latest software release provides Audible " content download via the Internet, taking the second approach.
ED: Where do you see Soniqcast going in the future?
Gary: Following the thoughts of my previous answer, you will see SoniqCast products expanding in their wireless connectivity via hotspots and the internet, with additional integration with content providers. New content forms are also on the horizon, including photos and video. As always, subsequent products will get smaller, faster, and more capable.
Turning a dream into a product can be very rewarding. Doing it in a short period of time is impressive. The Aireo has a number of unique features that will hopefully allow SoniqCast to hold its own against some stiff competition in the portable music player market.
Let me know if you have seen other consumer, commercial, or military products that you would like to hear more about.