With a backpack and a carry-on bulging with personal electronics, I felt like a true champion of the electronics industry as I headed for the Embedded Systems Conference this month. Then again, considering my sore back, maybe I was more of a martyr.
Why the gear overload? It's the age-old problem of a lack of integration, or "islands of functionality." Each device has a specific function that I can't replicate on the others: a Windows laptop to host a webcast from the show, a Mac laptop to proof magazine pages, a Blackberry for wireless e-mail, an old Palm III because I can synch it with my CardScan contact database, a cell phone, etc. And each of these devices has peripherals, like chargers, cradles, and cables. Luckily, the weather was seasonable in San Francisco and I was able to pack very lightly on the apparel side!
While my bags included a few of the latest tools of the communications trade—Canon's new Rebel digital SLR camera is worth the bulk—somehow I felt hopelessly behind the times. Perhaps it's because I'm so aware of the vision of seamless, ubiquitous mobile communications, that ideal of carrying a single, personal communications device that provides all needed business and entertainment content anywhere and anytime. Yet there I was, saddled with some 40 pounds of gear, some of it from the last century and seemingly light years away from this integrated vision that many of you are now working to create.
At the show, seamless communications became the impossible dream. After downloading some massive high-res files from the digital camera to my laptop, I needed to send them to my coworker's laptop. Of course, I didn't have a wireless local-area network (WLAN) card for that old IBM. Neither laptop had a disk drive. The PC didn't recognize a USB stick. There was no high-speed access at my funky hotel in downtown San Francisco, nor could I log the laptop into the LAN in the convention center's pressroom. And, the pressroom's dial-up connection took so long, the laptop's batteries died, the adapter being back at the hotel room. It was a comedy of errors.
Maybe this was a more typical mobile-warrior experience than we'd like to think. One of the pitfalls of reporting on emerging technology is the challenge of separating today's reality from tomorrow's vision. Ironically, while I was waiting for that failed dial-up download, I had a chance to sit with Rudy Lauwereins, vice president of design technology for Integrated Information and Communications Systems at IMEC. This Belgium-based international research organization is working on technologies for the next decade.
Lauwereins described a future far from my backbreaking burden of luggables. This future includes terminals evolving into wearable personal assistants with a variety of multimedia services and even a body-area network (BAN), connecting wireless sensors to monitor health.
IMEC's research is centering on two areas: multimedia multimode (M4), i.e., multimedia terminals with multimode wireless connectivity; and "Human++ Technologies," self-powered transducer packages for health and comfort monitoring with short-range, low-data-rate wireless connectivity.
The infrastructure supporting these capabilities will include devices that automatically configure in ad-hoc networks. IMEC is finalizing a multiple-input multiple-output approach (MIMO), designing processors for systems with multiple-antenna transmitters that communicate with several multiple-antenna receivers. The MIMO system will adapt its physical layer to segue between operating modes, intelligently determining the optimal configuration to serve the needed mix of higher data rates, multiple users, or better signals.
A vital piece of the seamless future will be the ability for a device to go from wide-area network to LAN communications modes, a handoff made seamless by the multiple modems/antennas in the MIMO approach. With multiple antennas, one modem maintains the initial format/connection until a second one establishes the handoff. "It's 'make then break' rather than 'break and make' the new connection," says Lauwereins.
At a show like ESC, almost every exhibitor has a different spin on what the future will hold. I think Bill Wong, our editor covering the embedded space, did an excellent job of getting a full overview and sorting out the real, important products that will have a true impact on your upcoming design. You can listen to an archived version of the webcast that we presented from ESC at www.elecdesign.com.