SAME Forum addresses technologies underpinning the IoT

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Opening the recent Sophia Antipolis Microelectronics Forum (SAME), SAME president Jaques-Olivier Piednoir said: "We are surrounded by a cloud of internet data and we use smartphones, pcs and tablets to interact with it. But the world is still analogue – and its physical nature is captured and transformed into data by sensors."

The first paper, 'Conversations with things', presented by Jean-Christophe Dupuy of NXP Software, emphasised the point. "People are analogue, however logical they may be", he said. The logical approach, he believes, is to use technology to make communication with digital objects more intuitive. In fact, Dupuy believes the voice and the microphone will be 'the next big thing'. "We're hardwired for analogue experiences," he said, emphasising his view that voice is the most effective interface. In his vision of the future, devices will listen to people, understand instructions and learn, while communicating intuitively. Smart devices of the future will have tiny voice enabled I/O systems that draw almost no power. "Of course, they will continue to process data digitally," he added. He also sees audio as the way forward for communicating with smaller devices, such as wearable gadgets, light bulbs and thermostats, obviating the need for touch or gesture recognition. "Simple microphones should be regarded as sophisticated sensors," he asserted. Techniques such as noise cancellation and noise filtering are under continuous development at NXP Software. The company is working on voice enabled empathic, cognitive machines – "machines that know how warm you like your house, how you like your coffee," he stated. Scepticism was apparent in some corners of the technical audience, primarily concerning the computational overhead required for voice enabled smart devices, as well as how to overcome the long standing training and learning challenges of language and accent issues in voice recognition. A keynote address from Cadence group director Frank Schirrmeister, pictured, explored the verification challenges and choices for SoCs targeted at 'internet of things' applications. Whether 'simple' microcontrollers combined with sensors, or complex mixed signal application processors, the software and verification effort is growing in importance, Schirrmeister explained. "SoCs for IoT typically require integrated sensors, wired and wireless connectivity, 32bit functionality and performance, embedded memory and advanced security," he said. "Energy efficiency, for 'always on' devices and low cost, is critical too," he added. Software development has to start earlier in the product development cycle and both hardware and software verification and debug are a continuous process, according to Schirrmeister. "System development without prototyping is too risky today," he said. But the choice of tools, for hardware, software, virtual and physical prototyping, for integration, verification, optimisation and debugging at various stages during product development, can be bewildering. In addition, Schirrmeister said, engineers will have different requirements at different times, as well as different skills. He highlighted the pros and cons of a number of options, including software development kits, virtual prototyping, fpga based prototyping and board level prototyping. There is always a trade off between speed and accuracy, between hardware and software requirements, and what can be done when in the development cycle to find bugs as early as possible. 'The agony of choice' – as Schirrmeister entitled his address – is being addressed by Cadence with its vision of hybrid verification solutions. "No one product fits all needs," he said. A second keynote, 'Beyond programmable logic', was presented by Steve Trimberger of Xilinx. He warned SoC designers that simply moving to the next technology node may not provide the gains they have come to expect through Moore's Law. "Yes, we still get more transistors," he said, "but there is less area improvement with each new node and, importantly, the cost per gate is no longer falling." Trimberger's advice is to make sure designers do more with the transistors they get from the next process node.