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issue: April 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

Consumer Electronics
Can CE Cut the Cord?


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by Tim Somheil, Editor

The consumer electronics industry reduces size and power consumption, determined to make all media mobile.

Panasonic came to CES to launch two full–High Definition 3CCD camcorders. The HDC-HS9 is a hybrid model that can record to an SD (or SDHC) memory card or to its built-in 60-GB hard disk. The HDC-SD9 is the world’s smallest and lightest SD card high-definition camcorder, weighing 0.606 lb. Both units have Face Detection shoot in full High Definition—1920 × 1080 progressive recording at 24 frames per second. Components that contribute to high video quality include the company’s original 3CCD system, Advanced Mega OIS (Optical Image Stabilizer), and a Leica Dicomar lens. Advanced Mega OIS checks and compensates for hand shake around 4000 times per second—eight times more effectively than the company’s previous systems. The 3CCD camera system splits the incoming light into its three primary color components of red, green, and blue, and a signal from each is processed by one of the three CCDs to provide rich and detailed video images. www.panasonic.com

Despite admirable engineering efforts, the makers of traditional home appliances just can’t keep up with the pace of product development that goes on in the consumer electronics industry.

Consumer electronics have a built-in association with entertainment, which means fun. CE is sexy and hip and, with its famously short product life cycles, quite dynamic. That formula results in a great deal of outside interest. Consumers can’t get into CES, but the show is covered on news outlets across the U.S. and even around the world.

Interest is especially keen on never-seen-before devices, and CES always delivers. This topic was the subject of one of the 2008 CES conference sessions, The Top 10 Technologies You’ve Never Heard Of. Session speakers spoke of some future technologies that could be ready as soon as CES 2009. Other products were decades away—but even these pie-in-the-sky concepts are difficult to dismiss out of hand, given the CE industry’s record of developing remarkable technologies and bringing them to market with huge success.

One technology that could be commercialized soon is millimeter-wave wireless or Wireless HD. It was previewed at CES by Panasonic, using a device built by SiBEAM Inc. SiBEAM chief technical officer Jeffrey M. Gilbert, speaking at the Top-10 session, explained that the small device can transmit digital data at about 4 GB/sec, sending on a very high frequency and transmitting across a broad spectrum, which also makes it immune to interference from lower frequencies.

What’s important about this technology is that it promises a reasonable consumer price point. “There have been many advances in terms of the technology, which have enabled us to be very cost-effective,” Gilbert said. “Previously this millimeter-wave technology used exotic processes and exotic technologies, but some companies, including SiBEAM, have learned to use the same sorts of technologies used to make microprocessors (to) make this very fast high-speed wireless.”

Standardizing the technology is the new Wireless HD 1.0 standard, based on millimeter-wave wireless and supported by Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Intel, and others in the industry.

As impressive as millimeter-wave wireless performance is, it is not surprising to industry insiders (and probably not to consumers) that a system has been developed to allow a new leap forward in wireless data transfer.

Industry watchers love to apply Moore’s Law to all kinds of digital technologies. Intel founder Gordon Moore famously observed that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every 18 months. Since it was published in 1965, the law has proved true and the exponential growth in digital processing power—and the inherent cost reductions that come with it—have enabled everything from the home computer to electronic controls for home appliances.

Moore’s Law is applicable to other aspects of digital technology, and holds more-or-less true when applied to the growth in wireless data-transfer speeds. But there are some aspects of electronic devices where technology growth has to be measured on an entirely different scale.

iRobot’s new Looj gutter-cleaning robot won a 2008 CES Best of Innovations Design and Engineering Award, receiving the judges’ highest scores in the Home Appliance category. It’s the third iRobot home appliance to receive the Best of Innovations Award in four years. The robot is controlled by a wireless remote that doubles as a detachable handle. It cleans an entire stretch of gutter from one location, reducing the number of times a ladder must be repositioned and climbed for gutter cleaning. It drives under gutter straps, propelled by a three-stage auger that dislodges and eliminates dirt, leaves, and debris that can cause water damage, overspills, and ice dams. www.irobot.com

Wireless Power Shortage

All CE devices have to run on some sort of a power source and, as more of these devices become wireless, more are relying on batteries. “Power is going to be the challenge for everything we develop in the wireless world,” said Ross E. Dueber, president and CEO, Zpower, at the Top-10 session. “Energy storage (technology) has run up against many of the fundamentals of science.”

Thermodynamic law itself dictates how much energy can be put into power cells. The current mass-market battery solution is lithium ion chemistry, but it offers a comparatively small improvement on earlier chemistries. Chemical batteries, the science seems to indicate, simply cannot get much better than they are now.

Dueber said the industry is looking at how far it can push conventional energy storage technology, but also at future technologies like fuel cells, which offer smaller, more efficient packages. Fuel cells still rely on chemical generation of energy.

Ultracapacitors may also power devices in the future, Dueber said. “It’s not chemical energy now, but really storing that electrical charge on high-surface-area materials.”

Consumer electronics makers are working around the energy issue by making their products as efficient as possible, teasing out the life of their power sources. Displays, hard drives, and software have advanced significantly in terms of energy efficiency.

Another option would be to keep the power source out of the device. The power supply itself could be transmitted wirelessly to portable products even when they’re mobile—but current technology allows that only in the microamps range, and Dueber does not expect that to increase dramatically.

But a happy medium is gaining more attention: near-field (close-proximity) wireless inductive power charging, developed by an appliance company in Ada, Michigan, U.S.

Wireless Power for Frying Pans and PCs

Alticor began looking into a wireless induction power source for its water purification units, and engineers believed they could solve some of the inherent problems with inductive power charging. The eCoupled technology was commercialized 6 years ago, and 1.5 million wirelessly charged water purification units have been sold. To recharge, the water purifiers are placed in close proximity to the plugged-in charger.

The company was at CES showing how the system is used with a laptop computer, developed with a PC OEM and charged wirelessly through an integrated desktop computer. To show how versatile the charging platform can be, the company showed wireless power delivery to low-power applications like an iPod, medium-power applications like the laptop, and high-power applications like an electric frying pan, George Foreman grill, and food processor.

The system’s inductively coupled power circuit dynamically seeks resonance, so the primary supply circuit can adapt to the devices it supplies. It communicates with the devices, assessing their power requirements in real time and evaluating the age of the device and the battery, as well as determining the charging life cycles. This communication protocol enables the system to provide only the power needed to charge the device, unlike a plug-in device that stays on even after the charging is complete.

Different types of far-field power innovations will be needed to send power safely to a device that’s not in a cradle next to the charge unit. Another option for low-power devices could be a unit that powers itself by scavenging ambient energy from its environment. These solutions may be feasible in the coming years.

“The most obvious ambient power source is solar,” Gene Frantz, principal fellow, Texas Instruments, said during the Top-10 session. “But ambient vibration or any other kind of movement can provide power.”

This ambient vibration could be harvested by magnetic or electrostatic systems, or by systems employing piezoelectric or magnetostrictive materials.

The movement of the human body itself may soon provide enough power for some devices. The U.S. military wants to replace the 30 lb of batteries that a soldier packs into the field. The military and some universities have developed ways to harness the kinetic energy of the soldier’s (or a backpacker’s) movement. Working systems have been developed, but are not yet efficient enough to actually provide a weight advantage to soldiers.

Other possibilities include scavenging heat differential energy; panelists even mentioned the possibility of implantables to transform body fat into electrical energy.  As CE devices’ energy consumption continues to decrease, it will someday match the power generation ability of such power-scavenging technologies.

Solar is the most familiar of these technologies, but it has remained on the fringes for decades. With recent increased attention from consumers and a corresponding increase in global R&D, performance levels of commercial solar charging products are increasing. Better Energy Systems LLC (Berkeley, CA), launched the Solio Magnesium Edition at CES and called it the world’s most advanced hybrid charger. The unit is engineered with highly efficient solar panels and high-
capacity batteries to collect and store power. Being a hybrid unit, it can also be plugged into a wall socket to charge the internal battery, which can then be used to charge electronic devices (phones, MP3 players, etc.) at the same rate as if they were plugged into the wall. The battery will hold its charge for up to a year.

Omron Electronic Components used CES to demonstrate its P1TX4C-SX51 Transmitter Optical Subassembly (TOSA) and P1RX4C-SX51 Receiver Optical Subassembly (ROSA) for high-definition video. The pair of components is an ideal solution for addressing long-distance fiber-optic data transfer challenges inherent in bandwidth-intensive, high-speed data applications associated with HDMI-compliant high-definition video and audio formats. “By enabling a single link that carries bidirectional communication in parallel to the high-speed data, the SX51 makes upgrading equipment to HDMI 1.3, Display Port, and high-definition protocols significantly easier,” said Brian Peters, president of Omron’s networking products. www.omron.com

Displays Move beyond DTV

It has been 100 years since Scottish electrical engineer Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton was published in the magazine Nature with a letter describing electronic television for the first time. A working electronic TV wasn’t demonstrated until 20 years later.

Today, significant TV advances seem to come annually, bringing image quality up and unit cost down. TV displays are now the centerpiece of home entertainment systems, and increasingly in portable and mobile entertainment.

A Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) report released just before CES shows that 50% of U.S. homes have digital TV (DTV). CEA projected manufacturers to see 11% revenue growth, to over $25 billion, from DTV sales in 2007. It projected 2008 DTV shipments of 32 million units, for 13% revenue and 17% unit sales growth.

“Consumers are particularly keen to add HDTV to their homes, with high definition expected to account for 79% of total DTV shipments in the U.S. in 2008,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CEA.

New technology seeks to do more than just increase the picture quality, but to also give displays new capabilities. DLP display technology from Texas Instruments (TI) was the first HDTV system to enable 3-D viewing in the home.

This year, TI unveiled DLP DualView technology, allowing gamers to see dual content displayed on a single HDTV screen. The HDTV is connected to a compatible source and each gamer wears DualView glasses. DLP Products collaborated with ColorLink/RealD and others to develop the customized eyewear. Ghost-free picture quality comes from the coordination of the DLP chip’s 8-microsecond switching speed with high-contrast shutter glass operation. The prototype eyewear controller synchronizes the glasses’ shutters by decoding a proprietary signal embedded in the image stream.

All 3-D–ready DLP HDTVs are capable of DualView and can simultaneously display two content sources, including DVD movies, video games, and TV programming.

TI said display advancements for two-player gaming have been tried before by other manufacturers, but DLP is the first to deliver a dual-HD display that is independent of view location. Samsung and Mitsubishi are both shipping DLP HDTVs that are 3-D ready and have DualView capabilities.

TI also attracted much interest at CES with a prototype of a video projector in a cell phone. In the weeks following the show it announced production availability of a Pico chipset, with an imaging chip and a processor, to enable a new class of handheld and mobile projection products. TI believes the technology will improve handheld devices’ display and transform their use from tiny-screen viewing to big-picture viewing—and allow mobile video/graphics sharing.

“We expect projection within handset devices to start appearing in 2009, in a market where significant volumes are expected over the next five years.” said Bill Coggshall, founder of Pacific Media Associates, a projector market research firm.

DLP wasn’t alone in this new field. 3M launched an LED-illuminated projection engine designed for integration into almost any personal electronic device. The system is about the size of a wireless earpiece and is less than half an inch thick. Integrated into a mobile phone, it will project a 40-in. image with no speckle and a high fill factor for a high level of image quality. The engine uses an advanced liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS) electronic imager in conjunction with proprietary 3M optics technology.

At the Top-10 session, speakers observed that technologies such as mobile projection will turn new kinds of spaces into display surfaces, and once again people will be interacting with their electronics in new ways.

Mobility Is Key

If consumers like what they have at home, they want to take it with them, and that’s true for PCs as well as entertainment. Market research firm In-Stat looked at the North American PC market in late 2007 and found consumers want more mobility. “The dominant technology set desired over the next several years is wireless—wireless accessories, wireless peripherals, and long-range wireless such as WiMAX, or LTE, or EV-DO,” said Ian Lao, In-Stat analyst.

Consumer electronics have always had a strong hand in shaping modern culture, for better or for worse. Television helped define the 20th century home. Home computers and the Internet changed how we shop, find dates, and communicate personally. Mobile phones opened new mobile communications realms and are now evolving into multifunctional devices that offer more PC-like functions.

Some of the possible future technologies that the Top-10 panelists discussed could be considered unlikely, or even far-fetched—but consider how far-fetched electronic “television” sounded to Nature readers in 1908.

Suppliers mentioned in this article:
Omron Electronic Components LLC
 

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