Posted by Mike Thompson on May 24, 2012
Sensors are becoming more prolific and changing the way that you interact with your world. That smart phone in your pocket is a good example. A lot of what you can do with it is the result of sophisticated sensors that are built into it. For instance, the accelerometer inside determines the orientation in which you are holding the phone so the screen can switch making it easier to read. It also makes games that you control by moving the phone and applications like a bubble level possible. The accelerometer is actually a very sophisticated piece of technology, which is true of many of the sensors that are being developed today.
Controlling this new generation of sensors and interpreting the information that they generate requires a lot of compute power. This is increasingly being done with a 32-bit processor. The challenge is that the processor has to use almost no power and has to be infinitesimally small. The power consumption of a cell phone accelerometer is typically less than 100uA for the whole sensor. The processor has to use less than this but has to be able to process the necessary information in real-time. This requires a new class of 32-bit processor, and is one of the reasons that Synopsys developed the ARC EM family.
Targeted at sensors and other deeply embedded applications the EM family offers almost twice the performance of the processors used only 5 years ago to run a cellphone. The EM family does this while fitting into spaces as small as 0.01 mm2 and consuming as little as 2 uW/MHz.
As the sophistication of sensors continues to evolve the need for floating point calculations will grow to handle increasing levels of precision. Adding a floating point coprocessor is out of the question in sensors because of the extreme power and size limitations. While floating point calculations can be done on a 32-bit processor the performance will not be enough for many applications. Recognizing this Synopsys recently released a floating point unit that can be integrated with the EM processor cores. This floating point option (starting at 10K gates) requires only about 10% of the area and power of a coprocessor, but offers high performance for single and double precision math and complies with the IEEE-754 standard.
Because of the capabilities that they bring, sensor usage is growing geometrically and they are starting to show up everywhere and in everything. You interact with many more sensors every day than you do people. This is happening because of the new generation of 32-bit processors that are making devices possible that we could only dream about a few years ago. Can you imagine what we will be able to do five years from now!
At the age of 10 Mike begged his father to get him a computer. Never mind that at the time computers were the size of a large office and cost millions of dollars. Yes, Mike is no spring chicken and he didn’t get the computer, although his father did give him an abacus telling him that it would enable him to use the computer that he already had between his ears, which was not appreciated. Whether it was due to the trauma that resulted from using an abacus or just Mike’s love of anything electronic he has spent the last 30 years or so designing, building, and programming computers, microprocessors, and microcontrollers and developing applications that run on them. And his fascination continues with the definition of new processors and architectures in his search for the holy grail of computing: infinite performance at zero power consumption. Statistically speaking he is convinced it is just a matter of time.
Allen started in the ‘semiconductor IP industry’ before it was called the ‘semiconductor IP industry’. Back then, it was about ‘megafunctions’, ‘megablocks’ or MegaMacros™ (as trademarked by the pioneering UK IP company Allen was with… no, not that UK company). The biggest of these ‘mega’ things was an 8051! Today, of course, IP blocks are much larger and much more complex. And, it’s about the software, as well as the hardware. It’s also about working with a set of partners, sometimes called an ecosystem or community. Allen has been doing that for many years and is enjoying working with old and new friends on the ARC processor ecosystem.