Completely replacing a host via an addon is not a new idea, but implementation is everything. Those who remember back when the Intel 80386 became king may recall full-length boards that plugged into the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) bus and became coprocessors that ran rings around the host. In fact, the host turned into a peripheral processor.
Two companies have done the same thing but on a much smaller scale. The performance of these systems makes those 386 boards look archaic in comparison. They should also make developers rethink their approaches to new designs.
There are a few user-friendly Wi-Fi cameras on the market. Want to convert your camera into a Wi- Fi device so downloads are wireless? Just pop in Eye-Fi’s Eye-Fi Pro or one of its siblings (Fig. 1). These cards pack an entire system, including a processor and Wi-Fi interface, into a flash memory card.
On the surface, the Eye-Fi cards appear as standard flash memory cards that are typically targeted at cameras or flash-based camcorders. Data is stored on the card as usual, but when the on-board processor recognizes a Wi-Fi hotspot, stored photos or videos can be downloaded to a Web site or computer.
The Pro version provides even more options, allowing transfer of all kinds of files, not just images or video. This allows custom applications to be developed. It also means Wi-Fi can be retroactively added to almost any device that uses a flash card with minimal programming. There are even open-source servers designed to handle the Eye-Fi, but they only scratch the surface of what an embedded developer could do if the application programming interface (API) were available.
GAMING PC IN AN SD CARD
FXI Technologies’ GameJet is even more impressive because it packs a high-performance graphics engine inside a similar package (Fig. 2). It is designed to bring gaming to just about any handheld device with an SD card slot.
Unlike the Eye-Fi, FXI’s system is designed to do all the heavy lifting, much like the old 386 boards. The cell phone runs an application that works hand-in-glove with the FXI system, delivering keystrokes and other environmental info to the chip while rendering images on the cell phone’s display screen. Most cards can stream full video if that is the only thing they are doing.
This approach means the cell phone must run an application, but it is usually small and well within the capabilities of most devices. Similarly, content delivery can be on the side instead of over the wireless link. This is important because games can take up a sizeable chunk of storage. 3G connections are not bad for downloads but they don’t compare to plugging in what is essentially a flash card in a PC SD card slot.
The implementation alone is impressive, but the development process highlights the advantage of Atmel’s CAP architecture (see “Chip Twists ARM With Custom Logic”). FXI was able to put an ARM926 to work within months using Atmel’s CAP development platform instead of the year or more that a custom system-on-a-chip (SoC) would require (Fig. 3). The bulk of the system was off-the-shelf with FXI adding a custom 3D GPU and power-management unit (PMU). The FXI development system is basically the Atmel board with PXI’s software.
Using CAP allowed FXI to concentrate on other areas, including the software and business relationships for that critical distribution infrastructure.
These products cover a lot of ground, but developers can take similar approaches that address their application areas.