Dream Consumer Systems Turn Into Reality

June 16, 2003
From the Aibo robot to the latest portable MP3/DVD player, the world of consumer electronics has undergone an amazing revolution over the last decade.

From the Aibo robot to the latest portable MP3/DVD player, the world of consumer electronics has undergone an amazing revolution over the last decade. Developments in technology promise previously unthinkable innovation for future generations of home electronics and entertainment products. Cost reductions and performance achievements made possible through increased use of microprocessor-based control, digital-signal processing, and other circuit advances, as well as enhanced flat-panel display technology, will unleash a swarm of innovative products, many of which have yet to be conceived. These products will improve our quality of life, keep us better informed, and entertain us with more vibrant sound and more lifelike images than ever before.

Digital technology has permeated almost every aspect of our lives. We wake up to our favorite CD in a digital clock radio. We use smart washing machines and dishwashers that provide more exacting control over wash and rinse cycles. We watch programs on high-definition flat-screen televisions that now employ large-area liquid-crystal or plasma-based displays. The ubiquitous microprocessor in its many forms has become the enabler for almost every electronic consumer appliance and gizmo, as well as a multitude of devices ranging from digital watches to hand-drill speed control.

As technology allows designers to implement more complex processors at lesser costs, the microprocessor/microcontroller steadily is wending its way into many applications that previously couldn't economically justify their use. Today, we find some form of embedded processor in electric toothbrushes to control the motor, battery packs to control the charge algorithms, thermostats to control temperature and on-off cycles, scales to compute weight, and many other applications that were once only simple mechanical systems.

SENSORS, TOO Yet it's not just the processor that makes these applications possible. Many of these applications require low-cost sensors to do what they do. These sensors must provide information about conditions such as water or air temperature, water quantity, air pressure, speed, vibration, weight, distance, or any number of other conditions. Working together, the sensors and processors enable many novel applications.

Sony's (www.sony.com) Aibo dog-like robot and bipedal robot are impressive examples of what can result from a combination of sensors, processors, and software (opening photo on left and Fig. 1). The latest Aibo entertainment robot, the ERS-210A, can even sense when its batteries are low and return to the charging station to recharge itself on its own. After charging, it re-activates and continues its autonomous behavior. Aibo also can recognize its owner's face and voice, allowing it to distinguish that person from anyone else in the room. Although the current generation is still relatively expensive and only has a limited market, it heralds the beginning of a revolution in personal robotics. The experimental bipedal robot is even more unique, because implementing a robot that can mimic human walking has proven very difficult.

Just as the Aibo has learned to recognize faces and voices, new generations of laptops, PDAs, cell phones, and the like are incorporating biometric sensors to prevent unauthorized users from accessing the contents. These biometric alternatives eliminate the need for users to remember passwords or carry security keys, reducing the burden of device security management. One version of the Zaurus PDA from Sharp Corp. (www.sharpusa.com) incorporates a fingerprint sensor. Several companies now offer laptops with a fingerprint sensor, and several keyboard vendors bring that option to their units.

A WATCH FOR ALL REASONS The venerable digital wristwatch is taking on more functionality, offering address books, cameras, heart-rate monitors, or the ability to connect with other devices worn on the body to network sensors and recording devices.

The Timex Corp. (www.timex.com) bodylink system consists of a network of two to four devices worn on the body that act as a single information and sport monitoring system (Fig. 2). The components include: one or more sensors to measure heart rate, speed, distance traveled, and GPS information; a multifunction Ironman datalink sport watch; and a data recorder to store information for post-workout/event analysis and review.

The sport watch combines some personal organizer capabilities and sports features, such as a 200-lap chronograph, multiple countdown timer, and multi-event interval timer. Software that comes with the watch lets you download contacts with multiple phone numbers, appointment schedules, and other personal information from a PC or a Mac. Users can also manually enter data or import data from a Microsoft Outlook messaging and collaboration client.

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