Monday, February 8, 2010

Wireless technology in the spotlight on Day 1 at ISSCC

(February 8, 2010)
The First day of the International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) traditionally devotes Monday morning to a set of plenary sessions that provide a higher level view of industry trends, before the deep dive into detailed design papers take over in the afternoon.

In the 2nd plenary talk - "Harnessing Technology to Advance the Next-Generation Mobile User-Experience", Greg Delagi, Senior VP at Texas Instruments, provided his vision of the state of the cell phone industry. With 4.7 billion cell phone subscribers worldwide, we have reached an "inflection point" where sales are no longer driven by lower cost, but instead by higher levels of integration. The operative strategy now is differentiation, which shifts the focus to the application processor that must support all the new features that consumers demand.

Mr. Delagi cited three challenges for handset design: higher performance, connectivity, and power. While claiming that performance has increased 300X from 2000 to 2010, he showed how additional enhancements for imaging, graphics, video, display and Human Device Interaction (HDI) will drive the need for an additional 1000X increase in performance by 2015. Looking out a bit further, "new and unknown applications" will continue to demand another 300X by 2020.

According to Delagi, "MPU performance (x86) has not kept up". He showed that multicore provided a 10X improvement from 2000 to 2010, with a similar trend for ARM cores. Power limits cause performance to saturate at a 2GHz clock rate, hence the conclusion "we have a performance gap". (Or Scotty.. we need LESS power!)

Connectivity is another factor demanding increased performance as cellular modems advance from 3G to 4G, supporting data rates that will grow from ~1MBPS today to (ideally) as high as 100MBPS in the future. Add to that connectivity for mobile TV (1-10MBPS), WLAN (WiFI, Bluetooth) (0.1 - 10GBPS), and internal data moving between DRAM and non-volatile flash memory (10s to 100s GBPS).

Video capture and display in cell phones is expected to approach "near cinema quality" in the near future, requiring .2 to 2 terabytes of data for 4K HD content. New features such as pico projectors for external displays and image sharing add 0.5 to 3 Tbytes to the data load. According to the TI presentation, heterogeneous multiprocessors will be the solution, with a built-in 100GPS interconnect fabric.

The presentation included a demonstration of what TI calls advanced HDI, a forward facing (toward the user) camera for no-touch sensing of hand/finger movements that was called one of the "biggest areas moving forward". This touchless interface was forecast to appear in handsets within the next 12 months.

Batteries, as we know, have not kept up - resulting in an "energy gap". This is the single biggest issue to be resolved. Though he pointed out that the problem started with the shift to higher resolution color displays, it was curious that new display technologies to address what is the biggest power hog in cell phones were never discussed.

Through various circuit and semiconductor process tricks, Mr. Delagi concluded that we've "got the next three years covered through silicon scaling". He left it as a challenge to the industry to find and deliver another 100X efficiency to stay ahead of the energy gap.


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