Healthy Living Electronics Dominated By Power

Sign of the times: ISSCC show shifts from the fastest and biggest to the smallest and lowest-power designs.

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By Pallab Chatterjee
The theme for this years ISSCC (International Solid State Circuits Conference) is “Electronics for Healthy Living.” In addition to the new microprocessors, memory and data converter technologies, the focus and keynotes are directed toward health-care products.

The common theme between all the talks is that health-care is being driven by mobility, information flow, and power. The key to high quality data transfer is having enough power to complete it—either wired or wireless. The key to mobility is to have autonomous power for the devices for the duration of time that it does not impact the activity the user is involved with.

The keynotes cover the range of silicon’s impact on the health care. Medtronics is discussing the scope of implantable devices, the reliability, data transfer and the system architecture of the implanted and external portions of the system. IMEC then follows with a discussion of the invasion of specialized purpose sensors that are now possible, their inroads into health care and the creation and powering of body area networks. Samsung then speaks on a different twist for health care. Their angle is that the major cause of pollution is energy consumption and hence generation. The way to address this problem is through reducing energy use in the manufacturing process and in the design of devices that utilize less power and can take advantage of innovative packaging.

Following the keynotes is the inaugural Plenary RoundTable discussion on how to address the next 10X reduction in power. The discussion is is hosted by Jan Rabaey of UC Berkeley and features TSMC, Hitachi, STMicro, Infineon, IMEC and other senior experts from the semiconductor and university commnity. This challenge, encompassing process innovation, CAD, design flows for digital, RF, analog, and memory is one of the key drivers for the next generation of energy efficient electronics.

Energy efficiency has now earned its own session with Energy Efficient Digital, which will be detailing such projects as ultra-low-voltage standard cells that operate down to 62mv of supply. Other new technologies include a 28nm DSP from TI that can operate at 0.6V, and wireless sensor processor that utilizes only 10pJ per clock cycle.

The technology development sessions once again mix between high performance and low power. On the high-performance side, architectural design for Terahertz (300GHz to 3THz) imagers and associated device blocks—amplifiers/antennas are being shown. On the low-power side, a transceiver that can operate at 0.24nJ/b, and energy scavenging converters that are now up to 72% efficient and generating 95mv, will be presented.

Filling out the program are tutorials on ultra-low power digital design and a forum on ultra-low voltage VLSI for energy efficient ICs. These sessions are expecting large attendance as they are the dominant directions for the next decade.

The shift for the conference and the industry is dramatic. Historically over the past 40 years the conference has been the vehicle where the biggest and fastest semiconductors were debuted. These devices now have to share the spotlight with the smallest, highest-density and lowest-power devices. The show is focusing a lot more on architecture, device technology and the systems aspects rather than just circuit blocks. This focus accompanies the idea that SoCs are true systems, and the they need to be addressed as such with focus on function, performance, power and application. The body area network discussions and technology, which balance data transfer and power as the main tradeoffs, are representative of the future of the systems and IC discussions in the future.