Member Profile: Thomas Struzik

Member Thomas Struzik at his bench.

 

  • Member Name: Thomas Struzik
  • Location: Houston, TX
  • Education: BSEE, Purdue University
  • Occupation: Software architect
  • Member Status: He has been a subscriber since day one. “I’ve got Issue 1 sitting in a box somewhere,” he said. Thomas adds that he was a BYTE magazine subscriber before Circuit Cellar.
  • Technical Interests: Thomas enjoys automation through embedded technology, robotics, low-level programming, and electronic music generation / enhancement.
  • Most Recent Embedded Tech-Related Purchase: He recently bought a CWAV USBee SX Digital Test Pod and an Atmel AVR Dragon.
  • Current and Recent Projects: Thomas is working on designing an isolated USB power supply for his car.
  • Thoughts on the Future of Embedded Technology: Ever-increasing complexity is becoming a stumbling block for the “average” user. “Few people even realize the technology embedded in everyday items,” he said. “How many people know that brand-new LCD TV they’ve got is actually running Linux under the covers? Fortunately, there seems to be a resurgence of ‘need-to-know how stuff works’ with the whole DIY/maker culture. But even that is still a small island compared to the population in general.”

Game On with the Arduino Esplora

Every time the Arduino team is about to release a new board, we expect something great in terms of better specs, more I/Os, a faster processor, more memory—or, well, just something to “fill the gap,” such as small-scale versions. With “Esplora” the Arduino team pleasantly surprises us again!

Arduino Esplora

The brand new Esplora is targeted toward gaming applications. It consists of a gamepad-shaped development board that includes an Arduino-compatible Atmel ATmega32U4, a light sensor, a temperature sensor, an accelerometer, a joystick, push buttons, a slider, an RGB LED, and a buzzer.

The Esplora is as a ready-to-use solution for designers who don’t want to deal with soldering or prototyping by means of discrete components. In fact, it comes preprogrammed with a controller script, so you only have to connect it to a PC, download the free game “Super Tux Cart,” and have fun.

An additional color LCD will be released soon in order to create a portable console. The only drawback is you can’t directly connect standard Arduino shields to it , mainly because of space limitations. Nevertheless, the board itself includes enough features to make it interesting.

The Esplora should enable you to implement a controller for almost any application you dream up. In our case, we’re sure it will bring back nice memories of the time when we were too young for soldering irons but already pros with gamepads!—Jaime González Arintero Berciano, Elektor International Media

 

The Future of 8-Bit Chips (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Ever since the time when a Sony Walkman retailed for around $200, engineers of all backgrounds and skill levels have been prognosticating the imminent death of 8-bit chips. No matter your age, you’ve likely heard the “8-bit is dead” argument more than once. And you’ll likely hear it a few more times over the next several years.

Long-time Circuit Cellar contributor Tom Cantrell has been following the 8-bit saga for the last 25 years. In Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, he offers his thoughts on 8-bit chips and their future. Here’s a sneak peek. Cantrell writes:

“8-bit is dead.”  Or so I was told by a colleague. In 1979. Ever since then, reports of the demise of 8-bit chips have been greatly, and repeatedly, exaggerated. And ever since then, I’ve been pointing out the folly of premature eulogizing.

I’ll concede the prediction is truer today than in 1979—mainly, because it wasn’t true at all then. Now, some 30-plus years later, let’s reconsider the prospects for our “wee” friends…

Let’s start the analysis by putting on our Biz101 hats. If you Google “Product Life Cycle” and click on “Images,” you’ll see a variety of somewhat similar graphs showing how products pass through stages of growth, maturity, and decline. Though all the graphs tell a rise-and-fall story, it’s interesting to note the variations. Some show a symmetrical life cycle that looks rather like a normal distribution. But the majority of the graphs show a “long-tail” variation in which the maturity phase lasts somewhat longer and the decline is relatively gradual.

Another noteworthy difference is how some graphs define life and death in terms of “sales” and others “profits.” It stands to reason that no business will continue to sell at a loss indefinitely, but the market knows how to fix that. Even if some suppliers wave the white flag, those that remain can raise prices and maintain profitability as long as there is still demand.

One of the more interesting life cycle variations shows that innovation, like a fountain of youth, can stave off death indefinitely. An example that comes to mind is the recent introduction of ferroelectric RAM (FRAM) MCUs. FRAM has real potential to reduce power consumption and also streamlines the supply chain because a single block of FRAM can be arbitrarily partitioned to emulate any mix of read-mostly or random access memory (see Photo 1). They may be “mature” products, but today the Texas Instruments MSP430 and Ramtron 8051 are leading the way with FRAM.

Photo 1: Ongoing innovation, such as the FRAM-based “Wolverine” MCU from Texas Instruments, continues to expand the market for mini-me MCUs. (Source: Cantrell CC25)

And “innovation” isn’t limited to just the chips themselves. For instance, consider the growing popularity of the Arduino SBC. There’s certainly nothing new about the middle-of-the-road, 8-bit Atmel AVR chip it uses. Rather, the innovations are with the “tools” (simplified IDE), “open-source community,” and “sales channel” (e.g., RadioShack). You can teach an old chip new tricks!

Check out the upcoming anniversary issue for the rest of Cantrell’s essay. Be sure to let us know what you think about the future of the 8-bit chip.

PCB Service for Prototypes

Elektor recently inked a deal with Eurocircuits for the production and sale of PCBs. The decision is an important step toward delivering valuable services to Elektor members.

All of Elektor’s PCB orders will be handled by Eurocircuits. If you have a nice design yourself, you can try the Elektor PCB Service for prototypes or small production runs. Visit ElektorPCBService.com for more information.

Elektor.TV visited the Eurocircuits booth at the Electronics Show in Munich. In the video Dirk Stans (a Eurocircuits owner) comments on some of the company’s services and deliverables.

CircuitCellar.com is an Elektor International Media site.

The Future of FPGAs (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) have been around for more than two decades. What does the future hold for this technology? According to Halifax, Canada-based electrical engineering consultant Colin O’Flynn, current FPGA-related research and recent innovations seem to presage a coming revolution in digital system design, and this could lead to striking fast advances in several fields of engineering.

In the upcoming Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue—which is slated for publication in early 2013—O’Flynn shares his thoughts on the future of FPGA technology. He writes:

Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) provide a powerful means to design digital systems (see Photo 1). Rather than writing a software program, you can design a number of hardware blocks to perform your tasks at blazing speeds…

Photo 1: Source: C. O’Flynn, CC 25th Anniversary issue

Microcontrollers have long played the peripheral game: the integration of easy-to-use dedicated peripherals onto the same physical chip as your digital core. FPGAs, it would seem, have no use for dedicated logic, since you can just design everything exactly as you desire. But dedicated logic has its advantages.

Beyond technical advantages, such as lower power consumption or smaller area with dedicated cores compared to programmable cores, dedicated cores can also reduce development effort. For example, current technology sees FPGAs with integrated high-end ARM cores, capable of running Linux on the integrated hard-core. Anyone familiar with setting up Linux on an ARM-based microprocessor can use this, without needing to learn about how one develops cores and peripherals on the FPGA itself.
Beyond integrating digital cores to simplify development, you can expect to see the integration of analog peripherals. Looking at the microcontroller market, you can find a variety of tightly integrated SoC devices with analog and digital on a single device. For instance, a variety of radio devices contain a complete RF front-end combined with a digital microcontroller. While current FPGA devices offer very limited analog peripherals (most have none), having a FPGA with an integrated high-speed ADC or DAC would be the making of a highly flexible radio-on-a-chip platform. The high development cost and lack of a current market has meant this remains only an interesting idea. To see where this market comes from, let’s look at some applications for such an FPGA.

Software-Defined Radio
Software-defined radio (SDR) takes a curious approach to receiving radio waves: digitize it all, and let software sort it out. The radio front-end is simple. Typically, the center frequency of interest is just downshifted to the baseband, everything else is filtered out, and a high-speed ADC digitizes it. All the demodulation and decoding then can be down in software. Naturally, this can require some fast sampling speeds. Anything from 20 to 500 MSps is fairly typical for these systems. Dealing with this much data is suited to FPGAs, since one can generate blocks to perform all the different functions that operate simultaneously…

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.

Do Small-RAM Devices Have a Future? (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

What does the future hold for small-RAM microcontrollers? Will there be any reason to put up with the constraints of parts that have little RAM, no floating point, and 8-bit registers? The answer matters to engineers who have spent years programming small-RAM MCUs. It also matters to designers who are hoping to keep their skills relevant as their careers progress in the 21st century.

In the upcoming Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue—which is slated for publication in early 2013—University of Utah professor John Regehr shares his thoughts on the future of small-RAM devices. He writes:

For the last several decades, the role of small-RAM microcontrollers has been clear: they are used to perform fixed (though sometimes very sophisticated) functionality in environments where cost, power consumption, and size need to be minimized. They exploit the low marginal cost of additional transistors to integrate volatile RAM, nonvolatile RAM, and numerous peripherals into the same package as the processor core, providing a huge amount of functionality in a small, cheap package. Something that is less clear is the future of small-RAM microcontrollers. The same fabrication economics that make it possible to put numerous peripherals on a single die also permit RAM to be added at little cost. This was brought home to me recently when I started using Raspberry Pi boards in my embedded software class at the University of Utah. These cost $25 to $35 and run a full-sized Linux distribution including GCC, X Windows, Python, and everything else—all on a system-on-chip with 256 MB of RAM that probably costs a few dollars in quantity.

We might ask: Given that it is already the case that a Raspberry Pi costs about the same as an Arduino board, in the future will there be any reason to put up with the constraints of an architecture like Atmel’s AVR, where we have little RAM, no floating point, and 8-bit registers? The answer matters to those of us who enjoy programming small-RAM MCUs and who have spent years fine-tuning our skills to do so. It also matters to those of us who hope to keep our skills relevant through the middle of the 21st century. Can we keep writing C code, or do we need to start learning Java, Python, and Haskell? Can we keep writing stand-alone “while (true)” loops, or will every little MCU support a pile of virtual machines, each with its own OS?

Long & Short Term

In the short term, it is clear that inertia will keep the small-RAM parts around, though increasingly they will be of the more compiler-friendly varieties, such as AVR and MSP430, as opposed to earlier instruction sets like Z80, HC11, and their descendants. But will small-RAM microcontrollers exist in the longer term (e.g., 25 or 50 years)? I’ll attempt to tackle this question by separately discussing the two things that make small-RAM parts attractive today: their low cost and their simplicity.

If we assume a cost model where packaging and soldering costs are fixed but the marginal cost of a transistor (not only in terms of fabrication, but also in terms of power consumption) continues to drop, then small-RAM parts will eventually disappear. In this case, several decades from now even the lowliest eight-pin package, costing a few pennies, will contain a massive amount of RAM and will be capable of running a code base containing billions of lines…

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.

Electrical Engineer Crossword (Issue 269)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s December electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.

Across

1.     MOSFET—According to Ed Nisley in his Circuit Cellar 265  2012 article, this type of tester characterizes a transistor’s behavior by computing the drain resistance at each combination of measured voltage and current

5.     LORENTZ—Type of force on a charged particle caused by electromagnetic fields

9.     TWEED—Tests your engineering know-how in every issue of Circuit Cellar

10.   HOMECONTROL—In last month’s “Task Manager,” Circuit Cellar Editor-in-Chief C. J. Abate mentioned that this was one of the hottest topics in the magazine’s earliest issues [two words]

12.   TASK—In his article in this issue, Bob Japenga defines this as an instance of a software program that is utilizing CPU resources to accomplish some purpose

14.   WIRTH—Swiss computer scientist who designed the Pascal programming language

16.   ILLUMINATION—An LED’s purpose

18.   CALLBACK—Enables a lower-level software layer to request a higher-level-defined subroutine

19.   ELECTRICALRESISTANCE—German physicist Georg Ohm 1789 – 6 July 1854 first introduced this concept [two words]

Down

2.     SHANNON—Cryptographer known as the “father of information theory”

3.     AUTONOMOUSROBOT—Does not rely on human interaction [two words]

4.     BODEPLOT—Represents a system’s gain and phase as a frequency function  [two words]

6.     EAGLE—Commonly used for PCB design

7.     TACHOMETER—A device that can help you determine revolutions per minute

8.     PROGRAMMABLELOGIC—These types of projects utilize FPGAs, PLDs, and other chips [two words]

11.   THERMOELECTRIC—Type of cooling that relies on the Peltier effect to alter heat between two types of materials

13.   MAGNETOMETER—Used to measure magnetic fields’ strength and intensity

15.   GREENENERGY—Focus of Renesas’s 2012 design challenge [two words]

17.   NONCE—Available for a limited time

 

Electronic Engineering Crossword (Issue 268)

The answers to Circuit Cellar’s November electronics engineering crossword puzzle are now available.

Across

2.     FLOWCODE—Columnist Jeff Bachiochi taught readers how to use this graphical programming language in his recent article about flowcharting (Circuit Cellar 266, 2012)

7.     LAPLACE—This type of transform is similar to Fourier, but expresses functions into moments as opposed of vibration

11.   RACEWAY—Channel to hold wires, cables, etc.

12.   SENSORSCircuit Cellar’s 250th issue (2011) focused on Measurement and this other topic

13.   LANDS—A metallic contact area

14.   BITTI—Interviewee (Circuit Cellar 253, 2011) who designed the “Witness Camera,” a self-recording surveillance camera

17.   DARLINGTON—This type of pair can be produced using individual transistors or purchased as a single device, as in a 2N6301

18.   WAFER—A slice of semiconductor material upon which monolithic ICs are produced

19.   DIELECTRICCORE—The insulating material that makes up the center of the cable through which the conductors are run [two words]

20.   THERMOPLASTIC—A synthetic, flexible mixture of rosins used as an insulting material

Down

1.     ROUNDKEYS—In his article “Hardware-Accelerated Encryption” (Circuit Cellar 266, 2012) Patrick Schaumont said AES encryption’s real secrecy comes from the periodic additions of these

3.     OILCAN—A type of planar tube, similar to the lighthouse tube, which has cooling fins

4.     VECTORGRAPHICS—In the 1970s, Circuit Cellar founder Steve Ciarcia wrote his first article for BYTE about this topic

5.     VOLTAGECONTROLLED—An oscillator controlled by voltage input; there are usually two types: harmonic and relaxation [two words]

6.     TEMPEST—Describes compromising emanations

8.     ACQUISITIONTIME—In a communications system, the time interval required to attain synchronism [two words]

9.     INTEL—Company credited with making the first single-chip microprocessor

10.   HANDSHAKING—How one device communicates with one or more other devices, at a predetermined speed

15.   VARACTOR—Used as a capacitor to control voltage

16.   SALLENKEY—Active filer, two-pole [two words]