Max Maxfield Looks at the Future of Electronics

Reading time ( words)

Maxfield: There's so much going on in Programmable Space (where no one can hear you scream) that I don’t know where to start. Well, since people are always focusing on higher performance and higher capacity, let's begin by looking in a different direction. Have you seen the Teeny-Tiny GPAK4 mixed-signal FPGAs from Silego? Even if you have no experience with FPGAs, you can learn how to program these little scamps in just a few minutes and they cost only a few cents each. 

At the other end of the spectrum we have the next-generation devices heading our way from the folks at Altera (which was recently purchased by Intel) and Xilinx (which wasn't). Take Altera's Stratix 10 FPGAs & SoCs, for example. These little beauties feature all sorts of innovations, including something they call HyperFlex architecture that provides ASIC levels of performance (the programmable fabric can run at up to 1GHz, and the on-chip processor cores can run at up to 1.5GHz). In the case of Xilinx, in addition to more programmable fabric than you can swing a stick at, their next-generation Ultrascale+ MPSoCs will boast 64-bit quad core ARM Cortex-A53 processors augmented with an ARM Mali-400MP graphics processor. But wait, there's more, because these chips will also boast 32-bit dual core ARM Cortex-R5 real-time processors. So that's seven processors plus a bunch of programmable logic, all on a single chip. The mind boggles!

Shaughnessy: What do you think of printed electronics? Will it ever displace traditional PCB fabrication? 

Maxfield: Ooh, that's a hard one. You have to remember that printed electronics have been around for a long time. I just checked in my copy of Bebop to the Boolean Boogie, whose chapter on circuit boards starts off by saying: "The great American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) had some ideas about connecting electronic circuits together. In a note to Frank Sprague (1857-1934), founder of Sprague Electric, Edison outlined several concepts for printing additive traces on an insulating base. He even talked about the possibility of using conductive inks…"

On the one hand, if you want the highest routing densities and highest signal integrities, I think today's traditional printed circuit boards (including high-density interconnect and microvia technologies) hold the high ground. But printed electronics have come a heck of a long way, and this technology certainly of interest for a vast swath of applications, ranging from one-off prototypes to massive production runs. It's like everything else in engineering—a complex multidimensional tradeoff.

Shaughnessy: I know you have a strong interest in futuristic gadgets. What’s the coolest electronic gadget you’ve seen lately?

Maxfield: Ooh, ooh! Well, apart from the gadgets I'm building myself, the coolest one I've seen recently has to be the Amazon Echo. Have you seen this? It's a matte black cylinder about the size of a pack of Pringles chips (or crisps if you speak the Queen's English).

Once you've integrated the Echo into your wireless network, you use it to communicate with a cloud-based entity called Alexa, who is a bit like Apple's Siri on steroids. I have one at home and one here in my office. If I want to check a fact, like the diameter of the moon, for example, I can simply say "Alexa, what's the diameter of the moon?” And she will respond, "The moon's diameter is 2,160 miles, or 3,470 kilometers." Or I can ask her to define a word or spell a word; I can ask her to add items to my shipping and to-do lists; I can ask her to do things like "Play ‘70s music from iHeart Radio.” The list goes on. 

The really interesting thing to me is that I see the Echo-Alexa combo as a taste of things to come with regard to next-generation embedded systems that boast embedded vision and embedded speech.

Shaughnessy: What segments or markets of the electronics industry do you think are driving innovation?

Maxfield: The simple answer is "all of them." Microcontrollers are getting smaller and more powerful while consuming tiny amounts of power. Some microcontrollers have embedded RF capabilities. Wireless networking protocols are popping up all over the place—not just Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but things like ultra-low-power self-forming, self-healing wireless mesh networks like ZigBee from the ZigBee consortium and SNAP from Synapse Wireless.

Today's sensor technologies just blow me away. In the early 2000s, if you owned a GPS, it was a pretty big and expensive unit that had to be powered from your car's battery. Who would have thought they would become small enough and cheap enough and consume so little power you would have one in your cell phone? It's not so long ago that a 3-axis magnetometer or a 3-axis accelerometer or a 3-axis gyroscope would cost you an arm and a leg. Now, with MEMs technology, you can pick up a 9-DOF (degrees of freedom) accelerometer / gyroscope / magnetometer on a single chip. You can even get them pre-populated on a breakout board, like this little beauty from Adafruit costing only $19.95. It's amazing!

Next-generation devices like smartphones are going to be sensor platforms. In addition to the stuff we've already mentioned like GPS and 9-DOF, they will boast ambient light, temperature, pressure, and humidity sensors. Plus they will boast sensor-fusion capabilities that will provide context awareness. Your phone will know if you are sitting, standing, walking, running, leaning against a wall, riding on a bus, going up in an elevator, and so forth.

Then we have the Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality, augmented reality, embedded vision, embedded speech, wearable electronics, and big data. Good grief! I could talk about this stuff for hours! Actually, these will be some of the topics I will be discussing in my Not Your Grandmother's Embedded Systems presentation at ESC Silicon Valley. 

Shaughnessy: You’ve written columns about your experience designing a PCB with free EDA tools like CircuitMaker. Not only are there dozens of free PCB design tools available, but they actually work. 

Maxfield: I come from the days where people laid out their circuit boards by hand using tape for the tracks. When the first board layout packages became available, they were really expensive while offering relatively little in the way of capability. Now, today's professional layout packages from Cadence, Mentor Graphics, Zuken and Altium are works of art. But the thing that really blows me away is the level of sophistication offered by free tools like Eagle PCB, PCB123, and DesignSpark PCB.

Shaughnessy: You always have some sort of DIY project going on. What are you working on now?

Maxfield: Oh, no. You didn’t just go there! How long do we have? Well, I'm still working on my Inamorata Prognostication Engine, whose role in life will be to predict whether or not the radiance of my wife's smile will fall upon me when I return home from work in the evenings. Of course, if she ever finds out what this is for, I won't need a prognostication engine to predict her mood.

This is actually coming along in leaps and bounds. I have the brass panels cut out and new faceplates created for my antique analog meters. The image in Figure 1 shows these panels and meters in the prototyping jig I'm using while creating the wiring harness.

Max_fig_1.jpgThe main meter at the top reflects the full range of female emotions, from Extremely Disgruntled (the red zone) to Fully Gruntled. In the fullness of time, these two panels will be mounted in the wooden radio cabinet circa 1929 you see in Figure 2. The radio cabinet is at the bottom. My chum, a master carpenter named Bob, created the smaller cabinet on top—including the hand-carved rosettes—to house the Ultra-Macho Prognostication Engine portion of the device.



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