Max Maxfield Looks at the Future of Electronics
Clive “Max” Maxfield has worked for decades in this industry, and in a variety of capacities: Engineer, author, editor, columnist, blogger, and keynote speaker, just to name a few. I caught up with my former columnist recently and asked him what he’d been doing to stay out of trouble, and what sort of technology and futuristic electronic gadgets were piquing his interest right now.
Andy Shaughnessy: Good to talk with you again, Max. Why don’t you start out by giving us a little bit of your background.
Max Maxfield: Hi, Andy. It's great to catch up with you also. My background? Well, I graduated high school in the summer of 1975, which was notable for several reasons, including: The band 10cc released the classic I'm Not in Love; I saw Pink Floyd perform Dark Side of the Moon live at the Knebworth open-air festival; and we had two weeks of blue skies with no clouds. The people in England are still talking about it—I was born and bred in the county of Yorkshire, so I was 20 years old before I saw the sun for the first time.
At the end of that summer, I started a four-year electronics course at Sheffield Hallam University, but I quickly realized that it was more academic than I was looking for. We were spending a lot of time doing things like calculating the angular momentum of electrons, which is something I think you can do in the privacy of your home if you are so inclined. For myself, I wanted to work with rockets and robots; so, after the first year, I transferred to a four-year BSc degree course in control engineering, which had a core of mathematics and "surrounding subjects" of electronics, mechanics, and hydraulics/fluidics.
After I graduated in 1980, my first job was as a member of a team designing CPUs for mainframe computers at International Computers Limited (ICL), which was the UK's equivalent of IBM, but much smaller, of course.
Looking back, it truly is amazing how much things have changed. At that time we were designing ASICs containing only 2,000 logic gates, and we were doing so at gate/register-level schematics using pencil and paper. Functional verification involved you and your colleagues sitting around a table looking at your schematics—you explained what your logic was supposed to do and they either agreed or offered suggestions. Timing analysis involved you deciding on the critical paths and then adding up all of the delays by hand. Basically, I predate electronic design automation (EDA) as we know it.
Eventually, two of the managers left ICL to form their own company, and they invited me and a couple of other guys to join them. This led to me learning about digital logic simulation, which led to me traveling around the world giving training courses in simulation, which led to me writing magazine articles and speaking at conferences, which led to me moving to Huntsville, Alabama, USA, in 1990 to take a position with Intergraph Corporation. Intergraph's electronics group eventually split off as VeriBest, which was subsequently acquired by Mentor Graphics.
My father passed away in 2000. He was 84 and I was 42, which seemed symbolic at the time, so I and a couple of friends formed our own little company providing high-tech marketing consulting. Eventually, we put all of our money into a project that failed, so they went off to get real jobs and I became a freelance consultant. Then, a couple of years ago, I was offered a job with UBM as one of the editors at EETimes.com, which led me to my current position.
Shaughnessy: You rose to fame within the electronics industry with your book “Bebop to the Boolean Boogie,” which was adopted by Yale and a variety of other colleges. What made you decide to write a book? How many have you penned so far?
Maxfield: Well, I love reading for a start. I really like science fiction and fantasy, and I also really like graphic novels (see Gobsmacking Graphic Novels and Alex + Ada; A future that may be closer than you think). In addition to technology in general, I also enjoy learning about math, physics, chemistry, and biology, just so long as they are written in a fun and friendly style. I get bored really quickly with dry-as-dust writings.
When I awoke one Saturday morning back in the mists of time we called 1992, I was planning on visiting a local bookstore, but then I thought it would be fun to one day see a book of my own on the bookstore shelf, so I powered up my computer and wrote "Now sit up and pay attention, because this bit's important." Then I sat back and thought "What am I going to write about?" The two things I knew the most were electronics and computers. I hated it when I was at university and I waded through book after book, none of which seemed to have the information I was looking for, so I ended up writing Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics), now in its third edition, which is jam-packed with nuggets of knowledge and tidbits of trivia, and which stands proud to this day as the only electronics book to feature a recipe for seafood gumbo.
Remember that this was before the Internet as we know it today, so I basically spent two years of evenings and weekends at the local library where they had a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica that I could use to check dates and facts. When I finished and sent it off to the publisher, I thought I'd never do anything like that again. But when I started watching television for the first time in two years, I quickly realized that I'd go insane if this was all I did, so I started work on the sequel, and things just kept on rolling along. (There's a list of Max's books thus far at the end of this article.)
Shaughnessy: Tell me about your “day job.” What are you doing to stay out of trouble?
Maxfield: I tell you, I don’t think I've ever worked harder in my life. Is it just me, or do you find that things seem to be coming at you faster and faster and that you are constantly juggling too many things? The problem is that I can't juggle. Actually, that's not strictly true—I can juggle five fine china plates, but only for about one second.
So, I'm currently an editor with EE Times. My "beats" include the Programmable Logic Designline and the EE Life section. I'm also the editorial director over on Embedded.com.
But wait, there's more, because I'm now the technical content director for the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC). This year we're having three ESCs in North America. ESC Boston 2015 took place in May; ESC Silicon Valley 2015 is coming up July 20-22, and we'll close the year out with ESC Minneapolis 2015 November 4-5. Of course, by the time we get to ESC Minneapolis 2015, we'll already be working furiously on ESC Boston 2015.
I'm too young for all of this excitement. On the bright side, since I'm now in charge, I have a high level of confidence that my own papers will be accepted! At ESC Silicon Valley, for example, I'm hosting an RTOS Smackdown, discussing the use of Awesome Analog Meters, and considering The Future of Embedded Systems.
Shaughnessy: You’ve written quite a bit about programmables. What sort of cool technology are you seeing in the programmables space?
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.
The 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.
Another project that is coming along nicely is my Vetinari Clock as seen in Figure 3. Are you familiar with the Discworld series of books by Terry Pratchett (RIP)? Lord Vetinari, the scary dictator of the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, has a strange clock in his waiting room. It does keep completely accurate time overall, but it sometimes ticks and tocks out of sync: "tick, tock, tick, tock… tick-tock-tick… tock…" In fact, it occasionally misses a tick or tock altogether. I decided to build my version of this beast using antique analog meters.
My graphics artist friend Denis, who is based in Hawaii, created the designs for the faceplates; master machinist John Strupat in Canada created the new faceplates out of aluminum and applied Denis's graphics using a proprietary printing process he's developed. The result looks like antique enamel. And my chum Jason Dueck from Instrument Meter Specialties in California refurbished the meters and added the new faceplates.
Once again, what we see above is the prototyping jig; it's just a piece of MDF I painted grey and then painted a black surround. Master carpenter Bob is working on the real cabinet, whose surround will be ebonized pear, while the front will be a fine-grained wood veneer with an interesting pattern and an aluminum-like finish. (Click here to see a video showing the vacuum tube on top of the clock being lit from underneath using tri-colored LEDs.)
Yet another project that's on the go is a Caveman Diorama I'm building in an antique television set. This has been on the back burner for a long time, because I didn’t know how to set about constructing the cave. However, I recently met a guy named Mike who is the mildest of men, yet who used to pilot Apache attack helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mike's hobby is creating monster model railroad dioramas. Mike wants to learn how to use an Arduino to control things like his streetlights, traffic lights, and houselights; I want to learn how to make the cave for my diorama. It's like we were made for each other.
The image in Figure 4 shows an early mock-up. The idea is that we are looking through the TV screen into a cave. The mountains will appear at the back of the TV cabinet. In front of the mountains we will have the tops of some 3D model trees, thereby giving the impression that our cave is located up the side of our own mountain. The hole is the entrance to the cave.
Figure 5 shows the current state of play as of last night. So our point of view will be looking through the TV screen into the heart of the cave. There will be a waterfall dropping into a pool on the left hand side of the cave. In the fullness of time there will be a bunch of cavemen sitting around a fire. I'm working to 1:32 scale, so a 6' tall man will be 2¼" tall. Sitting with the cavemen will be a figure in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt representing yours truly. In the corner of the cave will be an H.G. Wells-style time machine (based on the 1960 movie), thereby giving the narrative to my presence.
The really clever thing will be the mountains at the back of the TV. I'm actually going to render these in 3D on a flat-screen computer monitor. The idea is that the diorama will be tied to the real world via the Internet. Yes, my diorama will be one of the "things" on the Internet of Things. When it's daytime in the real world, it will be daytime in my diorama; when it's nighttime in the real world it will be nighttime in my diorama; when it's a nice day in the real world, all will be sunny in my diorama; and when it's storming in the real world...well, the folks in my diorama better look out.
And yes, I do actually finish some of these projects. See video below of my Bodacious Acoustic Diagnostic Astoundingly Superior Spectromatic (BADASS) Display (Figure 6) in action.
Shaughnessy: When can we expect another book?
Maxfield: Actually, I do have one on the go as we speak: a book on grammar and punctuation for engineers. As I always say, if someone sends me an e-mail saying "Your an idiot," they probably aren't sending the message that had hoped to convey. My mission is to make this so interesting that everyone is talking about it at the water cooler. I had a burst of activity a few months ago and wrote the first seven chapters in a couple of weeks, but then my attention wandered…oooh, something shiny!
The problem is that there are so many fun things to do, and so little time to do them in. Speaking of which, I have a diorama to work on. I'll send you some pictures when it's finished.
Shaughnessy: Thanks for your time, Max.
Maxfield: Great talking to you, Andy.
RELATED VIDEO: BADASS Display in action.
Max as author:
Max co-authored with his chum Alvin (Max wrote the words, Alvin created the software)
Max co-authored with his friend Kuhoo Edson:
Max as the editor or co-editor: