Three Must-Watch Electronics Trends in 2014

2014 promises to be full of potential for some key areas of the electronics industry.

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It’s halfway through January, and I think we’ve exhausted our “2014 Forecast” posts for the year. Still, it’s helpful to consider what lies ahead when all we have under our belts at this point is CES 2014 (and that event was clearly underwhelming as a technology bellwether).

I propose three areas to watch closely in 2014, based on ploughed ground from some excellent industry observers. Each has relevance to readers here in the Low Power-High Performance channel of Semiconductor Engineering:

  • Embedded vision
  • The future of programmable logic
  • The industry’s cost structure

 

Embedded vision
With the rise of the Internet of Things, one of the key data types that will get shunted around and analyzed in the network is video. Embedded visions systems will proliferate in all sorts of devices in the coming years and how system designers handle that data type, and its bandwidth and processing implications will make or break their businesses.

Jeff Bier, longtime industry DSP observer who serves as a sort-of P.T. Barnum for the future of embedded vision, puts the opportunity succinctly:

“Embedded vision is…one of these once-in-a-generation technologies. The closest parallel I can draw is wireless. Wireless is a huge industry that touches almost every aspect of technology.”

Why now?

Bier likes to point to Texas Instruments’ C6000 single-core DSP, designed for high-performance, streaming, media-intensive applications but also optimized for cost and energy efficiency.

This device has recently crossed the point at which it can perform 10 billion multiply-accumulates a second. That’s key, according to Bier, because that performance level is a typical compute requirement for a vision application.

Available markets, Bier argues, will quickly expand from established areas such as factory automation, mil/aero, and video-game consoles to building automation, robots, education, healthcare, field service, and other areas. Bier spoke to Cadence employees in December and outlined embedded vision’s potential.

Programmable logic’s future
What started as a glue logic solution 30 years ago and morphed into a nifty prototyping and small-lot vehicle has always held the promise of becoming the way systems get designed. But size and cost issues, while greatly diminished over time, continue to dog the technology’s broad adoption potential.
But that may be changing, according to Ron Wilson, editor-in-chief at Altera Corp.

Wilson sees two high-volume, high-performance and power-sensitive areas that could propel FPGAs into a different future: Wireless handsets (yes, you read that right) and data-center servers.

He interviewed FPGA expert Jonathan Rose, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto, and Jason Cong, Chancellor’s Professor and director of the VLSI Architecture, Synthesis, and Technology Laboratory at UCLA, about the trends.

In the mobile space, Rose sees the smart phone as a hub of the Internet of Things.

Wilson writes:

“This perspective opens all sorts of possibilities for implementing control networks over short-range wireless links, providing local processor accelerations, and so forth. At least some of these new local-processing tasks would benefit from the energy savings of FPGA acceleration.”

Cong sees FPGAs in data center design leveraging their flexibility, power benefits and performance to begin to work intimately with general-purpose CPUs in an “accelerator-rich environment” on specialty code to optimize performance and power. There are also reconfiguration possibilities that FPGAs will afford that type of system design, he adds.

Here’s Ron’s full analysis.

Paradigm shift
Lastly is a topic the industry has been grappling with since at least the crash of 2008-09 and maybe dates back to the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2001: Cost.

Time was when the semiconductor industry hitched its wagon to big-ticket end systems. First it was the space program; then it was big iron and mainframes; then it was PCs and then it was communications (base stations and handsets).

But the success of Moore’s Law has made electronics affordable for almost every application today, and that’s put pressures on cost. Today, the Internet of Things promises an enormous market, but those applications will require inexpensive semiconductors and silicon vendors are going to have to make it up on volume.

Semiconductor Engineering Editor-in-Chief Ed Sperling hit the nail on the head in a pre-Christmas post:

“Talk to any semiconductor executive these days about what’s next for their company and you’ll probably encounter the same perspective—cost will drive future design decisions. Dig a little further, however, and you’ll find no consistent strategy for reducing that cost.”

If you haven’t read Ed’s post already, here’s a link.

It’ll be fascinating in the coming months to see how the industry navigates these trends, and I’m sure there are others.

What are your top electronics-industry trends for 2014?

 

 

Brian Fuller, a long-time editor with EETimes, is editor in chief at Cadence. Follow him on Twitter at bfuller9.