Those who attended the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in the US a few weeks go, or followed it closely on the web or TV, would find the following question easy to answer.
What do the following have in common? Personal computers. Mobile tablets and smartphones. Big ticket items such as web-enabled TVs. The hundreds of small dedicated consumer widgets at the show. Wireless base-stations, IPv6-enabled wired Internet-backbone servers and routers. Wired and wirelessly enabled home networks. Sensor-enhanced home automation systems.
The answer: They all represent enormous opportunities – and challenges – for developers of embedded systems and devices. In different ways they represent the critical under-pinning of the various devices that attract the consumers' attention and dollars.
And the ability of embedded systems developers to continue to improve the hidden and invisible infrastructure upon which the consumer electronics systems and devices depend will determine the success or failure of consumer electronics as a market that drives the world economy.
Anything machines need embedded devices
General purpose "anything machine" desktop computers, and their mobile tablet and smartphone clones as the main personal computing platforms of choice are, of course, not embedded systems.
But as with desktop computers, even mobile tablets and smartphones are home to anywhere from half a dozen to several tens of embedded MCUs that offload the many deterministic and real time gesture and touch interface operations and management chores involved in USB, I2C and other serial connections between peripheral functions and the main system.
According to Shawn DuBravac, chief economist and senior director of research at CEA, who spoke at a briefing at the International CES last week, one of the big stories of the conference this year is "sensorisation," not only of the mobile, smartphone and desktop systems, but of the many wirelessly connected embedded devices on display at the conference.
DuBravac said that as the cost of sensors and their associated MCUs has dropped, many touch and gesture enabled smartphone and tablet system developers have been able to waste time on such resources by installing more than one sensor in electronic devices to enhance their capabilities.
But beyond their use in mobiles and PCs, he said, it is the ability of such MCU-powered embedded sensors to collect information from a variety of wirelessly connected devices and store it on cloud computing services that will open up a whole new range of consumer electronics services. In the near future, he said, various service providers in the healthcare industry are looking at ways to pool together their digital data on people's high blood pressure and overlay it over their smartphone calendars.
As with previous CES extravaganzas, such MCU-based and wirelessly-enabled dedicated devices outnumber the bigger ticket items by a ratio of about 100 to 1. Some of the introductions introduced at this year's show focused on serious home networking and automation and medical apps but many others are outright silly and odd.
But as I learned prowling around with an embedded designer at previous CESes, for all of that, they often exhibit an amazing array of new ideas and new twists on protocols, methodologies and technologies.
If a smart developer is able to spot them and figure out the "secret sauce" that makes them work it is often possible to come up with ideas that end up as mainstream building blocks in future higher ticket consumer and mobile systems.
The embedded communications infrastructure
Beyond that are the really invisible network infrastructure designs embedded developers are involved in from the MIMO-based wireless LTE base-stations to the 10 to 100s of GB/s data flow multi-core network routers and switches that bring the content to the consumer devices.
In addition are a number of Embedded Vision modalities and tools to bring the power of digital signal processing to create consumer electronics devices and systems "see," opening up an entirely new range of new user interface possibilities on not only consumer devices but automotive systems as well.
More embedded challenges to come
And in the labs at universities and research centres are a variety of designs that will test the abilities of embedded developers.
These are all areas of ongoing interest and I look forward to hearing from you about your ideas and experiences developing such systems with some of the new tools and protocols available as well as what kind of content you would like to see that would make it easier for you to do your job.