Tony Massimini is Semico's Chief of Technology.  See his bio here.

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Akustica High Definition MEMS Microphones Aimed at Smartphones

On November 28, 2012 Akustica announced a new family of high definition (HD) MEMS microphones.  There are 4 versions with two analog and two digital and a top and bottom port for each.  The company touts the new microphone family’s high signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of 63 dB, super wideband frequency response, and tightly matched +/- 2dB sensitivity. Akustica’s HD MEMS microphones are drop in replacements for most of the commonly used MEMS microphones.  The company is offering a wide audio range up to 7KHz when transmitting, but it can record with a wider range of 14KHz.  A key point is that Akustica offers top port versions.  This is a new packaging technology from Akustica.  Other top port microphones have lower performance than a bottom port microphone.  Akustica’s top port has the same performance as the bottom port version.  A bottom port microphone requires a hole in the PCB or flex circuit for mounting to the case.  A top port mounts on the other side of a board and is directly against the case.  According to Akustica customers are willing to pay a premium for a top port microphone if it can offer this level of performance.

ARM Reaching Into Server Market

ARM has become the dominant architecture in portable products.  The server market is not as large as smartphones and other portable consumer electronics in terms of unit volumes but   is growing at a fast rate.  While the volumes are relatively low, the processors in the server market carry a high price tag, in the hundreds of dollars.  Intel dominates the server market with Xeon.  This is Intel’s fastest growing product line and it has its highest gross margins.

ARM and its partners have been eyeing the server market for several years.  Expanding into servers results in a new revenue source.  The main thrust for using ARM technology in servers is the lower power consumption the architecture offers versus the x86.  It may require a multi-core and multi-socket solution to compete with Intel on performance.  Yet the ARM camp touts that it can still achieve a lower power profile, occupy less space and do this at a lower cost.

Currently, ARM is a 32-bit architecture while x86 is 64-bit.  A year ago (October 2011) ARM announced a 64-bit V8 ISA.  The chip vendors for ARM server class CPUs are Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC), Marvell, and Calxeda.  Currently, Marvell and Calxeda are supplying 32-bit ARM CPUs for servers.  AMCC has an architecture license.

Future of Sensor Fusion in Computing

Intel presented new capabilities for portable computing that are enabled by sensor Fusion at IDF 2012.  Sensor fusion has been associated mostly with smartphones.  Semico wrote an article discussing sensor fusion in a recent issue of the Semico IPI Report, August 2012.

Sensor fusion is not only the integration of more than one sensor but also the fusion of the data in order to use it for applications and enhance the user experience.  Sensors are defined as having a number of axes, also known as a degree of freedom (DoF).  Accelerometers can have up to 3 axes for the XYZ coordinate space.  A gyro measures the spin or rotation on each of the XYZ axes.  A magnetometer senses the magnetic angular rate and gravity (MARG) for each of the XYZ axes.  A magnetometer and accelerometer work together to achieve an eCompass function.  These sensors provide data from which direction and speed can be determined. The key application for sensor fusion is navigation and location based services (LBS).

As noted previously, more features are coming to the ultrabook which will require sensors.  Intel had technical sessions on sensors.  Windows 8 requires a minimum of 9 DoF.  Microsoft’s development program is Windows 8 Desktop.  This enables application developers to work with touch and sensors for tablet PCs and ultrabook PCs.  Microsoft offers a Windows Sensor Framework.  The Microsoft API allows developers to uniformly access sensors across platforms.

Intel Developers Forum

Intel kicked off its annual Intel’s Developers Forum (IDF) talking about reinventing computing.  This involves collaboration to shape the future from datacenters to devices.  In prior years Intel emphasized heavily its lineup of processors, manufacturing technology and focused on consumer products.  These things were of course presented this year and ultrabooks are an important innovation that Intel is promoting.  The next generation Core CPU, Haswell, is also highly anticipated.  Nevertheless, the datacenters and cloud services played a bigger role this year.

Datacenters with servers, communications infrastructures, cloud services and security are just not sexy enough for the general public.  However, the continued growth of smartphones, tablets and personal computing is dependent on the build out and continuing innovations of datacenters to support these devices.  Security throughout this ecosystem is being addressed by Intel and was discussed in detail.

The data centers are an important business for Intel.  As noted in its most recent financial statements it is the company’s fastest growing segment and best profit margin.

ADI Raises the Bar on Low Power Consumption for MEMS Accelerometers

Analog Devices has announced a MEMS accelerometer with the lowest power consumption, the ADXL362. The company cites the following levels as the lowest in the industry:

  • Measurement current: 2 µA
  • Wakeup mode: 300 µA
  • Sleep current: 10 nA

The innovation that ADI has achieved is the design of the control circuit for the accelerometer. More intelligence and interrupt processing has been designed into the control logic. The MEMS sensor itself is also low power, but it was designed to fit the control circuit.

ADI has focused on the usage model for the accelerometer. This is not intended for portable consumer and smartphone applications which already have a cost effective solution. In these products consumers are accustomed to plugging in a device to recharge on a daily basis. ADI is targeting the ADXL362 at markets that require long battery life, on the order of years. These are applications that it is either costly and/or very difficult to change the battery. This includes monitoring remote or dangerous locations such as pipelines, bridges, tall buildings, etc. Other applications include sealed environments (military and medical monitoring), cattle tracking and gas meters.

The Tablet PC Usage Model Continues to Evolve For the Next Generation

About a week ago I had the pleasure of attending Phoenix ComicCon.  It is not as big a convention as ComicCon International in San Diego, but it keeps growing.  Frequent readers of the Semico Spin may remember I report on the consumer electronic trends I see at that show.

One of the big draws at Phoenix ComicCon was the 25th Anniversary of the TV show “Star Trek: the Next Generation.”  One of the panels was focused on actor Levar Burton.  I met Levar Burton at the Intel Developer’s Forum in 2010.  The video in this article was in the original article for IDF 2010.  Levar Burton appeared at IDF 2010 to promote Intel’s efforts in SmartTV.

In addition to his work as a performer, Mr. Burton also has a production company that is developing content for new media.  At IDF 2010 he did not go into details on these projects.  Besides Star Trek, Levar Burton is also well known as the producer and host of “Reading Rainbow”, (1983 to 2006) a TV show  that encouraged children to read.

Enabling IP Evolution and Growth

On Wed May 16, 2012 Warren East, CEO of ARM, gave the opening keynote address at Semico Research Impact Conference: The IP Ecosystem.  Mr. East addressed the issue of IP (Intellectual Property) evolution and growth.  Looking forward there has to be more collaboration in the IP world, both horizontally and vertically.

IP companies need to work closely with chip vendors.  Semiconductor companies want to hold onto what they see as differentiators.  But this may work against lowering development costs.

In the last 20 years ARM has enabled wireless mobility.  The fabless model has lowered costs and spawned the growth of many companies.

IP has value.  Mr. East cited Semico’s projection of $3 Billion in projected IP revenue in 2012, a 25% growth rate.  There are over 100 blocks per chip.

There are increasing demands on chip design.  Today the chip is the system.  The board complexity has moved onto the chip.  Designers have to balance power with performance.  There are optimized processing units designed for specific tasks.

ADI Blackfin DSP Roadmap to Machine Vision

Recently Analog Devices, inc. released the latest additions to its Blackfin family of DSPs.  The BF60x family is a high performance dual core design targeting high end embedded applications.  Two members, BF608 and BF609, integrate hardware processing for machine vision.  This recent product launch introduces ADI’s Pipelined Vision Processor (PVP). ADI’s PVP is a new dedicated vision accelerator.  The company touts this feature for sophisticated, multi-function analytics.  It can perform up to 25 billion math operations per second.  The BF608/9 is well suited for many embedded vision applications.  The PVP along with the dual 1GHz Blackfin DSP cores offers customers a flexible architecture for them to develop specialized algorithms.  The target applications are ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System), industrial machine vision, and security & surveillance. ADI’s PVP has several functional blocks.  It provides acceleration in such key areas as object detection, object tracking, and object identification.  The PVP architecture is able to run up to five vision algorithms simultaneously.  This enables vision systems to monitor and process data from several sources and off load work from a main processor.  This is particularly important in automotive applications where so many things are going on and driver safety is critical.

Is Amazon Burning Apple with Kindle Fire?

In the closing days of 2011 it was reported that Amazon’s shipments of Kindle Fire were stronger than expected. It was launched in mid-November. By the end of 2011 Amazon announced about 4 million Kindles were shipped in December alone, of which more than half were the Fire. Amazon has not yet released official end-of-year results. The Kindle Fire is estimated to have shipped between 4 and 5 million units in its debut. According to Amazon “Kindle Fire is the #1 best-selling, most gifted, and most wished for product across the millions of items available on since its introduction 13 weeks ago.“

Has this hurt Apple iPad2 sales in 4Q 2011? There are some reports that Kindle Fire took away 1 to 2 million units of potential sales from Apple. However, Semico views this as just speculation at this point. There have been no official statements from Apple on results of this most recent quarter. The company had not made any definitive statements on sales projections for Apple iPAD2 for the quarter. In light of the fact that the tablet PC market is still relatively new and we experienced various supply chain disruptions due to earthquakes and floods, one could not expect otherwise.

Accelerating Adoption of MEMS Timing

Recently there have been two major announcements in the MEMS (microelectromechanical system) oscillator market. Market leader SiTime breaks into high-precision OCXO timing with Stratum 3 compliant solutions; and Integrated Device Technology Inc. (IDT) jumps into the MEMS oscillator market with a piezoelectric MEMS resonator.