LEADING LIGHTS of Britain's semiconductor industry took time off last week to discuss trends and opportunities for the near future. The mood was surprisingly upbeat, considering the downturn and the fact that the Future World Symposium in London was overshadowed by the Intel Developer Forum.
Robin Saxby, co-founder and retired head of ARM, acknowledged that the UK comprises only a tiny part of an industry dispersed across the globe. But this has not stopped ARM from becoming a $6 billion multinational company after starting with 12 engineers and a modest $1.75 million investment 20 years ago.
He told attendees at the event, organised by the industry's trade body, the National Microelectronics Institute, "Many of you have that opportunity... but you have to have a vision of how you can be the world's best."
Saxby predicted that a big growth area would be systems to manage energy use in the home and conserve limited resources such as water. Other speakers singled out smart cars and intelligent transport systems.
Bjorn Ekelund, head of ecosystems and research at ST Ericsson, said there will be an estimated 50 billion connected devices in the world by 2020, several per head of the population. Mobile broadband speeds will rival those of fixed links within five years, he predicted, with both topping 100Mbps, though operators will not necessarily make the full speed available.
The low latency of next-generation LTE links will be as important as data rates for a responsive web experience because a single webpage typically draws content from several locations, with a potential delay on each.
Eight in ten new televisions will be Internet enabled by 2012, according to John Bird, principal consultant with analysts Futuresource. But sales of online video will lag behind those of packaged media, capturing only a third of the market by 2014. Blu-ray videos will outsell DVDs by 2013 but their combined sales will decline under the impact of broadband and 'piracy'.
Bird also predicted that tablets will outsell netbooks and e-readers by around 2012. But sales of each format will remain well behind those of laptops, which will total around 200 million a year globally by 2014, he said. Annual sales of smartphone sales will top 500 million in the same timeframe.
Mike Short, VP of research and development at Telfonica O2, said smartphones are likely to overtake PCs as the primary Internet access device, which means companies cannot afford to ignore mobile users in their web strategy. A lot of organisations have yet to wake up to the opportunities even of simple features like texting. "More SMS appointment reminders are sent out by hairdressers than by NHS hospitals," he said.
Satnav pioneer Kanwar Chadha, chief marketing officer at Cambridge-based CSR, said location technology will get better at working within buildings by using a combination of technologies including gyros and accelerometers that can help track movements.
Two speakers highlighted how software developers are having to adjust to changing hardware. Tony King-Smith, of Imagination Technologies, said many programmers are failing to make optimal use of systems-on-a-chip by focusing too much on the central processor.
Microsoft's Mike Hall, principal software architect for Windows embedded, said the emergence of multi-core processors, coupled with a shift from the traditional graphical interface to Iphone-style multi-touch interfaces, have entailed a shift from thread-based to task-based programming. Development tools now allow programmers to concentrate on top-level functionality without have to concern themselves with how to optimise use of multiple cores.
Software is playing an increasing role in communications. Simon Knowles, of Icera Semiconductor, screened a die shot of one of his company's modem chips. "We happen to have defined this as a 2G, 3G and LTE modem but it could be a whole list of other things," he said.
The point was that there was no hardware acceleration, with nothing hardwired that was specific to any communications standard, allowing the chip to be easily updated or turned to new uses. Yet it has already been tested for LTE link speeds of 50Mbps.
Bob Gove, president and CTO of Aptina Imaging, said pixel sizes on both CCD and CMOS camera sensors are shrinking roughly in line with Moore's Law, pushing up resolutions.
Changes in pixel microstructure will make them more efficient, enabling them to capture scenes in low light. And, by processing multiple images captured in rapid succession, cameras can capture details of both shadows and highlights in a scene. Speaking after his address, Gove reckoned that by 2014 cameras will be able to match the human eye in its ability to easily capture a scene in virtually any lighting condition.
The eye inspired one of the many breakthroughs made by another speaker, Professor Christofer Toumazou, founding director of Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College. He explained how analog preprocessing by each "pixel" in the eye filters and compresses data before sending it to the brain. This had prompted him to use analog processing in the design of an ultra-small, ultra-low-power cochlear implant that talked directly to nerves in the ear to give deaf children some hearing.
He also designed a mixed analog and digital chip with a low-power radio design that fits into a stick-on plaster to monitor chronically ill patients. This promised not only to cut the cost of the kind of care that eats up most of the NHS budget, but also to make it more efficient because monitoring can be continuous, with alarms triggered at the first sign of trouble.
Toumazou last year created a chip that tests DNA for specific mutations, enabling doctors to identify people vulnerable to particular diseases. "I can do in 15 minutes a test that might otherwise take two or three days," he said.
A still greater opportunity for the semiconductor industry is in the emerging field of pharmacogenetics, aimed at cutting the huge number of deaths caused by inappropriate prescriptions. Doctors using conventional diagnostics have no way of knowing whether a patient can metabolise a particular drug
"Every drug should have a genetic chip for companion diagnostics. This is the future. This is the way things are going," Toumazou said. µ