April 1, 2004
Behind The Scenes at The Embedded Systems Conference
Embedded Systems Conference
Inside are the gems I discovered at this year's Embedded
Systems Conference in San Francisco, including current directions in embedded Linux
development, progressive silicon art, robots for science and entertainment, public
transportation and the relentless drive of the economy.
The day began on an inauspicious note when I decided to use
public transportation to commute from my apartment in the South
Bay to the conference in San Francisco aboard the CalTrain. It seemed like
a good idea – eco-friendly, no need to deal with traffic
or parking. A quick shuttle from the CalTrain station to the
Moscone Convention Center and the trip would be complete, or so
Sometimes even the simple things take focused effort.
While waiting for the train I gazed around, taking in the sounds and
sights of a bustling train stop – after about 15 minutes it dawned on
me that at least two trains should have arrived and departed, but none
had done either. What was up?
I pulled out one of my favorite and most useful portable devices
– a tiny, portable radio that runs on one AAA battery.
After two minutes with the headphones and KQED, the traffic report came
around explaining that north bound CalTrain service was
disrupted indefinitely due to a gas leak. Super!
I could take this news one of two ways. I could either get upset at
CalTrain for delaying my trip, cursing technology up and down for the
failure or I could be grateful that some embedded gadget somewhere had
detected a gas leak and had notified living, breathing humans of the
So with my glass both half-empty and half-full I head home and
drive myself to the conference. Once in San Francisco I park in
the parking lot of SBC Park (formerly known as PacBell Park) and
took a shuttle bus (public transportation at last) to the
Moscone Center. Stay tuned – the return bus trip is worth
The day was a typical, cool gray, drizzly Spring morning in San
Francisco. Outside the Moscone Center a lustrous public sculpture
dispelled the dreariness and I knew I was in San Francisco. This
is going to be fun.
Despite my issues with public transportation I arrived
with plenty of time to spare before the keynote address.
Staking out my spot in the auditorium I began to take in
the atmosphere and measure the mood of the crowd.
The demographics are pretty pedestrian – mostly
male, wearing blue jeans and toting their conference
backpacks. The lights dimmed and it was time for the
Robert Ballard, an oceanographer, geophysicist and
marine geologist from the University of Rhode Island,
gave the keynote address at this year's conference. He
is probably most famous for leading the team that
discovered the Titanic in 1985 – read his
for more about this fascinating character.
Ballard is not your typical speaker at an embedded
systems conference, but he was one of the best I have
ever heard. His main technical thrusts concerned
bandwidth from the un-manned deep sea vehicles to the
support vessels on the surface from which video would be
up-linked via satellite to colleagues and middle school
classrooms throughout the world.
encouraging philosophy of bringing remote exploration to
the masses is embodied in The JASON Project, a
multi-disciplinary program that sparks the imagination
of students and enhances the classroom experience.
Truly inspirational. But he did not have a lot to say
about GNU/Linux, embedded processors, PCI Express or
much else to do with electronics. Funny guy though,
highly recommended. Hopefully his deep sea adventure
tales can help steady the sails of the listing
embedded systems economy.
The Exhibit Hall
I won't bore you with a run down of all the exhibits, you can
read the website for that, nor will I bore you with the obvious
– embedded Linux is here today, growing fast and a force
to be reckoned with.
For those you who have never been to an embedded systems
conference let fill you on a few details. This conference deals
with the fundamental components for making consumer and
industrial electronic devices. You don't see a lot of polished,
marketable consumer products like cellphones or game consoles
– the exciting things you see are the next generation
silicon, processor cores, software tools, development tools and
serial interconnect products.
With that said all the big hardware players had a GNU/Linux
offering, some partnering with the likes of MontaVista, Red Hat, LynuxWorks and TimeSys. Everybody has
development boards and board support packages (BSP) for
At the same time, however, most of the big players also
supported old school RTOS vendors like Green Hill Software, QNX and VxWorks. Embedded system
teams are a conservative lot.
Looking at the various embedded GNU/Linux vendors it was
difficult for me to see a clear winner – all of them offer
an IDE (many using eclipse), with integrated source level
debuggers and kernel debuggers. Is there really that much
difference between one vendor's IDE and another?
I may be slightly biased, as I'm an emacs
user, which does everything these IDE's do and then some. Call
me a Luddite, I won't cringe. Less mouse, more coding.
It seems pretty clear to me that we haven't had the final shake
out in the embedded GNU/Linux distribution arena – too
many vendors without enough differentiators. They all look the
same and some will have to go. Only time will tell which ones.
I promised I wouldn't bore you with the obvious so I will
continue on with the less obvious.
Ever curious about the economy I asked numerous vendors
of hardware and software if they had any first hand
knowledge of a growing economy. Starting with hardware
development vendors I worked my way up the
technology food chain through hardware products and on
to software. At each stage I asked two questions:
- Have you seen an increase in orders and sales in the
past 6 months?
- Have you increased your own capital expenditures in
terms of physical resources or employees?
The low level hardware development vendors, people who
make JTAG programmers, bus analyzers and oscilliscopes,
all answered a qualified yes to both questions. They
had seen encouraging increases in the past quarters, but
are remaining cautiously optimistic at the moment.
Next I talked to PCI Express and ATCA vendors to see if
these new technologies are making inroads. These
vendors responded positively to both my questions,
saying the market is definitely showing interest in
these areas. Good news.
Finally I talked to software tool vendors and GNU/Linux
vendors. These vendors also responded positively saying
orders for products and services had increased during
past two quarters.
It looks like the economic clouds are starting to part a
ChipX art exhibit
ChipX, a structured
ASIC company, had a fascinating gallery of silicon-inspired art
from various artists. These artworks incorporated bits of
silicon wafers, packaged ICs and other hi-tech left overs to
create visually stunning pieces. A sampling from the gallery is
Other interesting things GNU/Linux
OKI, a company focusing on
two-way communication products, offered several ARM7 based
development boards using uClinux, a flavor of
linux for CPUs with no MMU.
For the parents out there OKI makes the CPUs inside the popular
LeapFrog music toys for
children – my 15-month old son loves his LeapStart
Learning Table. A lot of the music toys for kids offend
my ears, but the Learning Table uses digitized instruments with
a high bit rate. Parents know, anything that teaches kids music
and keeps them entertained without annoying the hell out of you
is a wonderful piece of technology.
Silicon Motion makes
a wide range of low-power multimedia chips that are DirectX and
OpenGL compliant (think nVidia/ATI without a honking
heatsink and fan on the
GPU). Here's a shot of their development board running
MontaVista Linux – notice the GPU without a fan.
|Toshiba 64-bit Home Gateway
offered a wide variety of TV set-top boxes, DVRs and residential
gateways running GNU/Linux. All of these products are powered
by Toshiba's MIPS based 64-bit processors – that's a lot
of horsepower for a set-top box. Check out their residential gateway.
The conference had two noteworthy robots in attendance
at opposite ends of the spectrum. One robot represented
peaceful, scientific exploration and the other
representing high testosterone, heart pumping
The first was a replica of the Mars Rover at the WindRiver booth
– keep track of your flash memory. Seriously though,
sending a robot to Mars and controlling it remotely with a
round-trip light-speed delay of 40+ minutes is very
impressive. But why run the thing with Java on top of VxWorks?
Why not include some lisp and python while you are at it?
The other really cool robots were the SozBots
at the Tensilica booth.
These mini battle-bots duked it out in a small arena, complete
with safety Plexiglas cage. These little bots were a huge hit
at the show. Here's a photo of a full sized saw blade battle-bot.
Posted by curt at April 1, 2004 8:14 AM
As I finished off the last aisle of the exhibit my aching feet
told me it was time to head home. Recall I needed to take a
shuttle bus back to where my car was parked at SBC Park. I made
my way to the front of the Moscone Center and wearily dragged
myself up the steps of the Greyhound bus destined for the parking
lot. It was here that I heard the most insightful observation of
the entire day.
On board the bus driver and some of the passengers and were discussing
virtual reality as I plopped myself in the bus seat, my first
sit down rest in over 5 hours. If you've ever discussed virtual
reality before you know the conversation can get quite "meta"
very easily, such as
The problem with virtual reality is that the virtual reality
universe is so engrossing that the distinction between virtual
reality and real reality melts away make the
virtual one the real one... Yes, but the
bandwidth and memory required to create a truly immersive
environment are still years off...
Or some such nonsense like that. My bus driver was holding his
own quite respectably in this conversation, but what he said at
the end blew my mind and made my day:
All the technology in the world won't do you any good without
Can't argue with that.