Mobile World Congress 2011 Barcelona, Spain
Day 3: 2/16/11
Google Pushes NFC Infrastructure
Bluetooth LE Coming to Everything
As NFC enters the baseline for Gingerbread and Honeycomb one can see it as just another interface to the phone. This is the tip of the iceberg. Tucked in the Android exhibit in a small stand with NXP Semiconductor, who made an announcement at WMC to create silicon for NFC tags and solutions which enable payment. In the booth were examples of what the technology could do. Android will have a simple tag reader included but this is only the beginning. The tags can have with them associated actions. Shown in the booth was a tag which caused the phone which had WiFi turned off to turn on. Tags can cause the phone to go to a website and many other actions. The problem is that there can be as many tag types as potential applications. For example, tags can cause an application to be downloaded which then creates action on the phone. One problem is that this spawns a very fragmented ecosystem. There are efforts at standards but this is a chicken and egg problem. The standards will be pushed along when the infrastructure is created. It is here with Google putting NFC in millions of phones that forces a leap in the NFC ecosystem.
Many scenarios were painted. One example is when an individual comes into a store they pass the phone at the entrance, their preferences are noted. Then the phone highlights items of high interest to that person. When they visit specific items and the NFC tag near the item is used they could be asked – Are you interested? This may create a special for that individual and payment is immediately made using NFC.
Relative to the identity verification issue vis-a-vis purchasing it is surmised that with NFC these would likely be tiered. That is, above a certain level, say $100, a PIN could be required on the phone. Another area TBD.
In booth tags were being passed out which were embedded on a roll of paper stickers. The tags looked like specs of dust. In most cases one would not even know they are present. But those present in the booth asked – I have an NFC application, how can I test it with tags and deploy it. Given the present ecosystem this is a problem, according to the NXP response in the booth. First, given the state of the industry it does not make sense to create small runs of custom NFC tags, let alone those for testing. There is nothing like a FPGA. Second, there is no easy way for small scale concepts to be created and tested. Lastly, the standards are only beginning which will allow classes of applications to be created and thus allow for applications with common attributes to run under one application type – such as web page access.
NFC is at the center of the development of a proximity ecosystem. Google has done much by putting it on Android devices. This will do much to spur the use of the technology but more importantly the value of Android phones in local applications which Google helps foster.
This was the remote control which surfaced at CES 2011 which uses the iPhone as the controller. The actual product is a IR transceiver which sets in the room where devices are to be controlled. The linkage to the iPhone is via Bluetooth and the iPhone runs an app for device control. This app accesses a data base of device control codes which are then customized for the individual’s CE environment.
What was striking is that the device is self-learning. It will discover devices in a room and set up the control profiles. Not all devices support this but those that do it makes the process much simpler for the user. The other learning feature is that the device can be set up to learn codes. For example, some devices such as blind control use an IR controller. One only needs to point the remote to the device and press the button for the control. This is then recognized by the IR controlled and registered on the iPhone app. The app then allows these codes to be linked to a unique operation and labeled.
In the demo we were impressed with the simplicity of the controls and integration with the iPhone and its gestures.
In terms of remote controls this is a game changer. Based on the response to CES it appears the market is doing the same.
Bluetooth LE on the Threshold
Bluegiga makes Bluetooth modules. These are small PCBs with embedded Bluetooth chips. Their market is directed too small to moderate volumes, up to 100,000 units, where the company with the application does not have the expertise to do the application development and the experience with Bluetooth technology. They just want to use what Bluetooth offers.
Their focus is now on Bluetooth LE. They gauge the response to this by the number of inbound requests. In the last 2 months this has sky rocketed. The initial applications will be fitness and sports oriented. ANT + is dead. We saw in another booth a Polar sensor which uses regular Bluetooth and was told the Bluetooth LE is on the way. The leading chip companies are CSR and TI.
Some of the applications being discussed are to self-power the chips based on motion – such as the strike of a golf club would use the energy of the strike. Others use it to embed in devices such as a football to log the inflight profile. Basically any normal object is subject to having Bluetooth LE embedded.
When asked about the “bag of modules” scenario, that is, one could go buy a bag of modules and place them around the home Bluegiga felt that a target, at retail, could be achieved in a few years of $2.95 each. Thus, a bag of 10 modules would be $29.95. This could enable home automation and location services in the home including keeping track of objects.
JPL Talks A-GPS
JPL has created a worldwide differential GPS system. This supports many missions, most of which are government related but it offers capabilities to the commercial sector. As they said, everything is real time. For $100k a year a chip or device company can subscribe to the service. This gives rise to the notion of A-GPS seen on many chips or phones. The focus in most cases is TTFF reduction. This relates to user experience and power consumption. One aspect of A-GPS is that they provide to the device the locations of the satellites in the sky before the FF. This enables much faster TTFF, on the order of 10 sec. When asked if the industry is demanding greater accuracy using their tools the response was no – it is TTFF reduction. From a consumer experience and power reduction standpoint this is understandable.
DxO Talks Camera Imaging
DxO technology is in 40m camera phones and rising to 100m. This is IP which spans the integrated design of the camera from the sensor module to its processing to output as JPEG. There market premise is that the challenges of cell phone cameras demand a system level approach in going from photons to JPEG. Their technology can get incorporated into the camera imaging as RTL. Even though they can support upper levels of the imaging stack, such as face detection, the core expertise is in the imaging and processing of the image.
Consistent with what has been learned before the power consumption is directly related to the number of operations per pixel. This varies based on the complexity of the design – such as the reduction in image noise as a result of the size of the pixel and required image quality.
In the cell phone business increasingly the size of the sensor is fixed due to limited real estate area and the number of pixels also fixed. The mega pixel wars have subsided on the cell phone. The challenge is to reduce the noise and this is the IP which DxO brings. But they also stabilize the images with the processing.
Some of the trends in the industry include the following.
Folded optics are not in favor due to the difficulty and cost of making them.
EDF, Enhanced Depth of Focus, is gaining support due to the reduction of power, better images and the appearance of autofocus.
Back side imaging is gaining favor due to the higher aperture ratio and more efficient imaging.
In general, the main stream camera companies have avoided the cell phone camera markets. The possible exceptions being Fuji and Olympus.
With the tremendous pressure on TTM, many of the OEMs just what the camera in the phone as soon as possible. But what is found is that the image quality is junk and they are forced to reengineer the image chain. This is DxO’s strength.
The market dynamics around the use of the cell phone camera are important. For men, who love the DSLR camera with the big zoom lens it is all about the picture taking. Size matters. But for women it is the picture and the means is largely immaterial. Thus, quality images on the camera, a good screen to see it on and the ability to share are what is important.
Areas of technical emphasis include: 3D, multi sensor imaging, for example Pelican Imaging, and image stabilization. This is the current focus of the industry. They observed that the LG 3D camera does set a new bar in terms of image capture and playback on the phone. This is consistent with the observations on LG in an earlier report.
One area to be explored is the use of GPUs for image processing and the impact this has on battery power.
Taking Imaging to the Next Step with Almalence
This is a startup company with interesting imaging technology. The booth was showing the following.
High quality digital zoom. This is accomplished with multiple exposures and integrating the images. Here camera motion is actually important to create the displacement. The booth image example, was quite good. Superresolution techniques are used to get the final image.
Low light imaging. This again uses multiple exposures. The technique is closely related to the processing the company does to improve dynamic range with HDR.
Shallow focus imaging, This is where the central object of the image is kept in focus and the background is defocused for emphasis.
The company is a startup and seeking customers at MWC.
A New Sensor Class – Breath Detection
Sensirion is showing a humidity and temperature sensor. It is currently implemented in a DoCoMo phone. This sensor detects and can log humidity and temperature. This has health implications and also a user interface application. One shown in the booth is the activation and even dialing of the phone by just blowing on it. Hard to believe but I got a picture.
Google has a booth here for Android, which is tucked away in the back of Hall 8. It is a crazy place like no other at the Congress. Packed with people there are many standup positions around Android figures. The positions are mostly for app developers by category. There is a “train” of devices which use Android and a slide between floors – saw nothing coming down. Smoothies are for free. This will take hours to capture what is happening.
Google has put online the complete human body. This can be seen in layers based on function – such as skin or nervous system. Just to watch the demo is impressive. Coding was done in 2 weeks.
Take a picture of text and it will translate from any language to any other language. Intended for short segments of text. This also has the ability to take a picture of a landmark and automatically recognize it and then do a search on what was recognized. Amazing.
The focus at MWC has been on location and imaging but there is much more. Here are some highlights.
The pace of this industry incredible. Significant changes happen in months. What is a relatively new industry – personal hand carried communications – has been turned upside down by newcomers. Apple and Google, Neither one operate by the normal market rules. This makes it all the more difficult for the establishment to understand. But many of the OEMs get it – Samsung, LG and HTC have adapted to the pace. Nokia and RIM have not. Motorola is trying.
As we have discussed many times the impact is well beyond what is carried in the pocket but extends throughout CE. Bluetooth LE is an example of a technology which extends the mobile network to virtually anything. The smartphone is the hub of this ecosystem. These are changes unfolding now. NFC is another game changer. This is all about proximity and is following right in the heels of location. As seen in this report the ecosystem has not formed here but again Google is shaping this future by making it omnipresent within Android. By every indication Apple is not far behind.
At the system level we have seen many of the design issues. Should GPS processing be in software or in an AP? TTFF is a critical variable in determining power consumption and there are many ways to minimize this. Battery consumption in imaging, be it a camera or video, is based on the operations per pixel. The inclusion of GPUs changes this game by offering pixel level processing and an impact on power consumption. We have only touched on the system level design issues which surfaced in a short time here. There is one axiom – these are all being developed by the major OEMs as they seek a competitive advantage in the rapidly changing market. The walk thru of the Samsung, LG and HTC booths provide satisfaction on the results of the very competitive environment but also how much the bar has risen with each new version of the OS, in this case Android, and the phones which leverage it.