April 1, 2004

Behind The Scenes at The Embedded Systems Conference

electronicaUSA 2004
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 Approach

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 I thought.

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 problem.

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 remembering.

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.

Keynote Address

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 keynote address.

Keynote Auditorium

Dr. 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 bio for more about this fascinating character.

Dr. 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.

His 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.

Conference Action

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 GNU/Linux.

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.

The Economy

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 little.

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 shown here:

Other interesting things GNU/Linux

Silicon Motion

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

Toshiba 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.

Robots Spectrum

Mars Rover

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 entertainment.

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.

Bus Driver

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 common sense.

Can't argue with that.

Posted by curt at April 1, 2004 8:14 AM | TrackBack
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