Configurable Thoughts


Too Many Sensors, Not Enough Smarts

Last March (yeah, time flies), I attended Sensorscon in San Jose. The event was insightful, with a wide variety of participants and speakers. The consistent theme of the speakers was that sensors will proliferate and broadly penetrate our lives. I saw some pretty big numbers there, such as a $19.5B market by 2016, and sensors in each smartphone approaching 20 by 2015. There are many driving factors behind these numbers, such as ubiquitous data collection through sensor networks, better health through lower cost consumer medical devices, and improved user experiences on our consumer electronics devices.

The recent explosion in the sensor market has not been driven by wide proliferation, but really, just a few device categories ramping to very high volumes with increasing sensor penetration per device. Mainly driven by, smartphones, gaming devices, and tablets. Sensor networks, medical devices, and really everything else, is peanuts.

What was interesting to me was the opportunity behind the opportunity. How many sensors does a phone need? Could a few really intelligent sensors replace the dozen plus used today? Consumers value an elegant user experience and advertisers value knowing where you are and what you’re doing, but does that mean more sensors? Or, could it be just smarter sensors? What was evident is that to date, very much a “brute force” approach has been taken by the industry. Brute force can get the job done fast, but it can also be unnecessarily expensive.

There were some early public indications of a smarter approach at Sensorscon. Start-ups dedicated to developing the software to get more from the hardware, and companies working together to establish software related standards. Not just sensor algorithms, but “smarts” through analysis, and in some cases, crunching through large amounts of data remotely, to get more out of each sensor. I also know first-hand that similar effort and investment is being made within device manufacturers. How do we do more (collect more data, improve user experience) at lower cost (e.g. fewer smarter, not more, sensors).

Reducing the number of unique sensors and finding ways to still add user functionality will be the job of software engineers and ultra-efficient processors. Processing the potentially massive amounts of data, in real time for some applications, has become the domain of integrated 32-bit processors, like the Synopsys ARC EM processor. The processor needs to be small and consume almost no power and generate almost no heat. The EM family does this while fitting into spaces as small as 0.01 mm2 and consuming as little as 2 uW/MHz.

But that’s not enough. This will be the domain of software engineers. Pervasive and easy to use development tools with highly efficient compilers are also important to embedded developers. Synopsys ARC EM processors are supported by the popular Eclipse-based IDE, MetaWare, as well as GNU tool chain.

With the right processors, the right tools, and the right engineers, I look forward to seeing us do a lot more with less.