Electronic Design
Behind the Scenes at CES 2012

Behind the Scenes at CES 2012

The 2012 Consumer Electronics Show was big and brash as usual but, by the same token, the really interesting stuff was not on the main floor. Our CES 2012 video coverage lets you see what we saw on the main floor and in the meeting rooms in Las Vegas.

A lot of what was on the floor this year was shown in the meeting rooms last year. You can watch New Samsung Displays: 3D, Green and Ultra-Thin at Engineering TV. This is where we had a first hand look at large, autostereoscopic 3D television technology that was a bit hard to find on the floor. In 2012 there were half a dozen on display on the main floor.

3D was all around the show. There was event a televised boxing on ESPN 3D. Everyone was able to see the 3D cameras ESPN is using. Now if there was enough decent 3D content on cable it might be reasonable to get a 3D HDTV. On the other hand, if you are a gamer then 3D is great (see 3D Needs Games And At Least A 60-in Screen ). And yes, all the 3D games and movies were being shown on multiple, very large screens. The only 3D on tiny screens were a couple of smartphones and cameras, if you could find them.

There was so much to see that I divided everything into about a dozen sections listed below. The Engineering TV videos are listed in this sections as well so if you want to just watch then check out the sections of interest. Some videos show up in more than one section when appropriate.

And, like anyone who has been to CES will tell you, there is too much to see even in one week. It is worse if more than half your time is spent in meeting rooms. Then again, that is where the action is. Luckily I can talk about most of what I saw at CES. The rest will have to wait until later in the year. So enjoy.

Audio at CES

Smartphones, tablets and HDTVs were getting write ups on the Internet but I think audio had more new tech at the show. I did have a chance to write up some of my thoughts on audio at CES (see The Sounds Of CES 2012).

Fraunhofer, originator of MP3, was showing off a variant of MP3 that may be showing up soon. It lets you adjust the volume of two different audio channels. This is likely to be used with sports events where there is an announcer and the backround sounds. Did you ever want to silence the announcer but didn't want to mute the rest of the sound? Well, now you can do it.

Fraunhofer always has something interesting to show. Last year they were showing high quality audior for teleconferencing (watch Fraunhofer Showcases High-Quality Audio).

GenAudio has been around awhile but this is the first time I met with them. Their 4D AstoundSound must be heard to believe. I got to hear it and I was very impressed. Of course the videos do not do justice to the audio but some of the screen images of the control app highlight what you hear.

Conexant showed off some impressive, far field audio processing technology. Their teleconferencing demo highlighted the technology. Essentially, a movie was playing at one end of the connection. The technology essentially muted the audio from our perspective at the other end of the call. It was like talking to someone without the background noise.

This ability to block out unwanted audio is key in a number of scenarios. For example, if you and your caller are watching the same TV show it is highly unlikely that the show's audio would be in sync. The delay causes echos and it is just very annoying. Now you can listen to the person at the other end of the call, your show and yourself without any extraneous noise.

There were plenty of portable speakers and speakers designed to work with iPhones, iPads and any other mobile device you can think of. GenAudio even had a speaker for this kind of environment. As you might guess, tablet audio is also getting better.

IDT's ACS422x00 is a stereo codec that can be paired with itself for quad output. The demo had a four speaker tablet that tracked the orientation using MEMS sensors. The system automatically adjusted the speaker output based on orientation so the sound remained the same when the tablet was rotated.

Engineering TV Videos

Multitouch Interfaces

Touch sensing systems were everywhere. They are inherent in most smartphones and tablets. Typically they are resistive or capacative touch in nature although some, like on of Amazon's Kindle e-readers, use infrared LEDs.

Freescale's Xtrinsic combines resistive or capacative touch into one technology. The chip is targeted at low cost applications using resistive touch for a display and capactive touch for buttons and controls. It is an interesting combination that takes advantage of the respective interface approaches.

Atmel's maXTouch S-series SlimSensor technology is more conventional capacitive touch solution. It supports direct lamination of the touch sensor and display layers like Cypress Semiconductor's TrueTouch Gen 4 technology (see Direct Lamination Multitouch Technology Delivers Top Notch SNR). These kinds of displays tend to be brighter, are less expensive to make and have greatly improved signal-to-noise (SNR) ratios for better performance. They have faster refresh rates providing better touch response.

Intersil was showing off a gesture system that did not even require touching. It uses infrared LEDs and sensors. This approach is similar to the one used by Silicon Labs (see 3D Touchless Infrared Proximity and Motion Sensor Kit). The advantage is system flexibility and reliablity. The downside is a more limited sensing accuracy but more than sufficient for major gestures.

Engineering TV Videos

Storage Technology

The number of hard drive vendors is down to a handful so most of the storage news was at Storage Visions which I also went to in Las Vegas. Check out my coverage of Storage Visions 2012 on Engineering TV. It ranges from tiny flash memory to petabyte video storage solutions. There are even multicore, ARM-based computing systems paired with flash storage.

Still, you could see plenty see at CES including hard drive products. Seagate had a lot of consumer products on display as well as a couple of future items. I have reported on the Momentus XT hybrid flash/hard drive (see Hands-on Momentus XT Hybrid Hard Drive) a while back. The latest incarnation of the Momentus XT (see Controller Combines Flash Speeds And Hard-Drive Capacity With Transparent Optimization) adds FAST (Flash-Assisted Storage Technology) Factor support. One aspect of FAST is reserving some of the flash for booting. Boot time is assumed to be the first few accesses after reset. The prior version would push out any cached data if the system was not reset on a regular basis.

Applied Micro was showing off a connected home with their controllers providing network and storage facilities. Their Scalable Lightweight Intelligent Management Processor (SLIMpro) security and management technology is some of the best around (see Multicore Server Processor Slims Down Secure Networking) providing secure communication and processing.

Seagate was also showing off their GoFlex WiFi storage (see Watch Out, Bluetooth— Wi-Fi Is Targeting Peripherals) products. They now work with Android devices in addition to iPhones and iPads. They also have a variant that incorporates 3G. Seagate is working with Verizon Wireless on this one so stay tuned on availability.

SanDisk is well known for their flash technology. I got a gander at their latest iNAND Ultra Embedded Flash technology. This is something that embedded developers will be very interested in. It mounts directly on a circuit board and provides managed flash storage.

Finally, I wanted to mention USB 3.0. It is responsible for delivering performance that USB 2.0 would not making peripheral flash devices practical from a performance standpoint. This is especially true as mobile devices are used to store more video and copying video has been a bottleneck for USB 2.0 devices. USB 2.0 was great for audio but video is where things are headed.

Engineering TV Videos

High Speed Interconnects

This is definitely one area where floor displays was rather limited. Of course most PCs being used have PCI Express inside and USB 3.0 was in most of these places as well. Xilinx was supporting these technologies as well as any other high speed serial interface you can think of including HDMI using their FPGA development platforms.

We did stop off at the USB booth area and got an eyeful of USB 3.0 technology including some Displaylink products. Running displays off USB 3.0 should get very interesting this year.

One of the interesting things coming to USB 3.0 is bidirectional power distribution. This means a USB 3.0 display could plug into a wall outlet and provide power to a tablet or smartphone that it is connected to. Of course, the reverse is true as well so a tablet's battery could drive display as it does now for devices like disk and flash drives. You will be hearing more about USB 3.0 from me this year.

All the major electronics players were in the backrooms if not out on the floor. I spoke with IDT'sPresident and CEO, Ted Tewksbury, about Serial Rapid IO. They have a PCI Express to Serial RapidIO bridge chip (see Innovative Platforms Enlist To Serve High-Performance Military Computing Highlights) that allows PCI Express platforms to coexist on a Serial RapidIO fabric. Curtiss-Wright Controls uses it on their CHAMP-AV8 with dual Intel Core-i7 processors.

Other vendors like Mercury Computers use FPGAs to link PCI Express to Serial RapidIO. Mercury's Protocol Offload Engine Technology (POET) protocol-agnostic, multi-standard switch fabric is used in FPGAs on their boards to perform a similar bridging function. The advantage is POET only uses part of the FPGA and it handles any fabric, not just PCI Express (see Innovative Platforms Enlist To Serve High-Performance Military Computing Highlights).

Engineering TV Videos

Analog and Power Technology

Analog and power are not my forte but Don Tuite, our Power and Analog editor, was not at CES 2012. Lou Frenzel and I did get to talk to a number of vendors that had analog and power related technology though.

Timing seemed to be a common theme with vendors. NXP had some neat MEMs-based solutions that are very accurate. I tend to cover their microcontrollers like LPC 1800 Cortex-M3 chips (see Cortex-M3 Can Run From Quad SPI Flash) but these need accurate clocks to provide good results. Crystals are also a technology that has not scaled as well as others.

NXP was not alone with timing solutions. IDT talked to me about silicon-based clocks. They also had integrated timing solutions to address PC motherboards and other platforms that require many different clocks.

Maxim's TINI family is a bit harder to categorize because it covers such a wide range of solutions. Some of the power SoCs fit here along with their audio codecs. TINI products also address touch interfaces and even cameras.

Engineering TV Videos

Digital Technology

Ok. Digital technology covers a lot of ground but I'll restrict myself to processors, FPGAs and SoCs. Sort of.

If you look under the hood of a lot of the top end tablets you will find NVidia's Tegra 3 (see Expect Innovation From Your New Tablet). This quad core Arm Cortex-A9 actually has a fifth, low power Arm core. The latter runs when a lot of computing power is not required providing significant power savings.

Pairing different size cores is not unique and done in many SoCs but it is becoming more common in standard platforms. ARM's big.LITTLE Processing technology formalises this approach. In this instance the big processor is a Cortex-A15 while the LITTLE is the new Cortex-A7. The idea is the same. Run the smaller, lower power core when possible saving batteries.

Google's Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), was on everyone's lips including MIP's. MIPS processors are everywhere from tablets to set top boxes and ICS will follow.

E-readers were getting plenty of mileage out of Eink's eletronic paper display (EPD) and Freescales's i.MX6 line looks to continue to capitalize on this. The Solo chips (6SoloLit and 6DualLite) sport the Arm Cortex-9 cores with EPD drivers (see Cortex-A9 Incorporates Electronic Paper Display Controller). I really like the 6DualLite because it adds Ethernet and 3D display support. This chip will find more uses than just e-readers.

Xilinx is finally delivering their Zynq development kits. The Zynq has a pair of Cortex-A9 cores plus a complete microcontroller peripheral set (see FPGA Packs In Dual Cortex-A9 Micro). Plain FPGAs will continue to be in demand but I think this type of platform is going to have a major impact on FPGA adoption. I did not get a chance to talk with Altera but they also have a version of their FPGAs with dual Cortex-A9's (see Dual Core Cortex-A9 With ECC Finds FPGA Home).

Xilinx was also showing off HDTV support. One demo was showing how their FPGA was used with a 3D autostereoscopic display. Another was driving a 4K2K display.

Imagination Technologies wants to developers to get more out of their GPU. This means taking advantage of GPU programming interfaces like NVidia's CUDA and Khronos' OpenCL.

And to wrap up this section, a quick mention of Via Technologies Micro-ITX motherboard standard that is now 10 years old. The Nano-ITX and Pico-ITX motherboards grew from this legacy. I also talked with VIA about their latest multicore x86 processors.

Engineering TV Videos

Display Technology

Yes, HDTVs of all sizes were everywhere. There were even some very large OLED HDTVs but still commanding a premium price although not that the original Sony OLED display did (see Sony To Sell OLED TVs In Japan). There were the usual 4K2K displays as well assuming you can find any content for them. They were impressive as was the usual plethora of 3D displays.

Sigma Designs was showing its EZTV Reference design. This tiny dongle fits in your hand and plugs into an HDMI port. It turns any HDMI device into a Smart TV. It is powered via USB and uses WiFi for connecting to the network.

Intersil was showing off pico projector technology. It is more compact and more power efficient that previous versions. It allows projectors to be fitted into even smaller mobile devices.

Eink's electronic paper display (EPD) is popular with e-readers and it has been used on other devices such as Lexar's JumpDrive flash that shows the amount of space used on the drive. The display uses no power when not plugged in and draws only a tiny amount when updating the display. Eink was showing off color demos and EPD prototype applications. It is a technology worth investigating for embedded applications.

USB 3.0 was also in play with displays providing power and content. USB 3.0 has the bandwidth to handle multiple displays at 1080p speeds. The ability to provide power and full duplex, high speed operation makes it a challenger to technologies like Thunderbolt. There were a few Thunderbolt displays on the floor but not much action from what I could see.

There was lots of silicon on display for controlling displays as well from the likes of Xilinx, Freescale, Imagination Technologies and more.

Engineering TV Videos

Automotive Technology

We did get to stop by Ford's booth to check out the cars and connectivity technology. Check out our NAIAS 2012 coverage on Engineering TV for more pure automotive videos.

The two Ford vehicles we looked at include the all electric Ford Focus and the Ford Fusion. The Fusion and Focus have gas, hybrid and electric versions. Connectivity is through MyFord Touch that is Microsoft Synch under the hood, so to speak.

We also talked with QNX about their connectivity support. Their Cloud Connected Car runs the QNX operating system that also power RIM's Blackberry Playbook. The demo car was Porsche's Carrera. It has features like voice recognition and on-touch NFC pairing with smartphones.

Engineering TV Videos

Networking and Wireless

Ever try to get WiFi to work at CES? It isn't easy but getting ZigBee or Z-Wave to work is easy. They coexist nicely while WiFi has a fixed number of channels and access points do not play together nicely.

Luckily Applied Micro had everything working in their digital home demo. They have a wide range of multicore processors that incorporates their Scalable Lightweight Intelligent Management Processor (SLIMpro) along with PowerPC cores for the main processor (see Multicore Server Processor Slims Down Secure Networking). SLIMpro delivers a secure communication and processing environment that every home owner should want. It is also something that has been invaluable in business and enterprise systems.

Of course the ZigBee Alliance was at CES with a host of members and their products as well. ZigBee has beeen chugging along with new standards like the LED Lighting Control. RF4CE is another ZigBee standard for controlling consumer electronic devices. Greenpeak was one company showing off RF4CE technology. I am really hoping this stuff shows up a lot more because I am tired of trying to get the IR remote to work.

Broadcom has chips that are found in lots of set top boxes (STB). It will be have a lot more based on some of the demos we saw. Their multichannel system overcomes some of the delays normally encountered when scanning channels by simply tuning a block of channels above and below the current one. Sometimes brute force works best.

Engineering TV Videos

HDTV and Smart TV

No, we didn't even try to track down all the latest HDTVs. 3D, streaming video support and higher scan rates were all the rage but you can find most of them at your favorite electronics store.

Instead we tracked down some of the latest tech that will improve the viewing experience. For example, Nanosys is bringing quantum dots to almost any display. It has a film with quantum dots that brings brighter, more vivid colors. It actually uses blue LEDs to get white light.

Broadcom is looking to be even more ubiquitous in set top boxes (STB) and media servers. It is already it a lot of them although their name only appears on the chips inside them. Its platforms address wired and wireless environments.

And for controlling those STBs and HDTVs we have RF4CE remotes. Greenpeak is one of the major players in the RF4CE arena and we got a look at their latest.

Engineering TV Videos

Tablets and Smartphones

If you want a quick overview of the latest smartphones then check out 10 Coolest Smart Phones From CES on our sister site, Mobile Dev and Design.

We did check out a couple platforms like Samsung's Galaxy Note. It has a large 5.3-in AMOLED screen and a 1.4GHz dual core processor. It can record and playback 1080p video. Multitouch support is standard and it also comes with its own stylus.

Freescale was showing off their chips that populate everything from e-readers to tablets. Of course, ARM is the architecture that dominates the smartphone and tablet space right now. It's big.LITTLE architecture blends a low power Cortex-A7 with higher end multicore Cortex-A15 much like NVidia's Tegra 3 platform based on Cortex-A9 cores.

Typing on a smartphone is not bad for texting but not for writing the Great American Novel. CTX Virtual Technologies has a better idea. Projecting a full size keyboard on almost any surface.

Engineering TV Videos


CES is not a big robotics show but there are a number of toy robots on display along with vacuum cleaners and a few more interesting robotic platforms. Parrot's AR.Drone micro UAV (unmanned air vehicle) was one of those. This four propeller copter can be controlled by a smartphone (see Smart phone Controls Low-Cost Quadrotor). I got buzzed while doing the interview. The battery powered copter can fly for over ten minutes. It has a forward looking, 720p HD camera and another VGA camera that looks down along with an ultrasonic sensor. This robot is just too cool to talk about. Watch the video. Its fun.

Speaking of smartphones, my frieds at Ologic can turn yours into a robot. Actually they have a platform that the smartphone plugs into. The smartphone controls the motors on the platform and the smartphone's camera and display are utilized as well. Of course, keep an eye on it or it might roll away before you can answer it.

Modular Robotics was not a company I was scheduled to meet with but we saw a happy crowd around their booth and stopped by. I was glad we did because we got a glimpse of their Cubelets. These are robotic building blocks that snap together. Actually magnets hold the blocks together and there are different kinds that perform different functions. For example, there is a power block, many sensor blocks and some motive blocks. Plug three of these together and you have a robot that will roll if it sees light. More blocks make for a more complex robot and the blocks are programmable.

We did take a look at some toy robots. Tosy had Justin Bieber highlight their DiscoRobo that dances to music. It is cute and available at stores near you.

The SketRobo was another Tosy robot. It draws and it can use its camera to figure out what to draw. Technically it is more impressive than the DiscoRobo but not as flashy. You could do the same with a plotter if you can find one these days but it would not be as much fun.

Murata's Murata Boy is a robot but not one you can buy. They use it to show off all their other technology that many designers already use from wireless communication to analog devices. It uses an interesting flywheel balancing system.

If you made it this far and read sequentially then you are a real trooper. If you watched all the videos then your eyes are probably hurting. If not, check out the links to the other sections that you might favor. There was a lot to see at CES and we have a lot of it here.

Engineering TV Videos

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