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'Digital self' reaches out from the digital home

Posted: 15 Jun 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:digital home? digital self? DSP? real-time processing? ultralow power consumption?

By Pradeep Bardia, Worldwide Marketing Manager
Michael Stich, Director of Service Provider Strategy, Digital Signal Processing Systems
Texas Instruments Inc.

Turnaround is fair play, or so it seems with today's digital home. Until only recently, much of the digital home's technology has been all about bringing the outside world inside the home's bricks-and-mortar. That is changing though, thanks to the advancement that DSPs have made over the years. The digital home is giving way to a new 'digital self' who is all about enriching what's in the home and bringing it into the outside world.

The Internet, broadband connectivity, wireless and wireline communications, home networking, cable or Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) and other DSP-based technologies are standard fare in most homes these days. Among the several characteristics that they share, one of the most obvious is that they are vectors pointing from the external world into the home. But the emerging digital self now is traveling along a different line. His or her technologies emanate outward from the home. Those aspects of the digital self's personality that matter most will digitally accompany him whenever he leaves and wherever he goes.

Much has changed since the first DSP were introduced some 25 years ago, including the performance parameters of this technology. But over the last decade and a half, at least one aspect of DSP technologyits ability to take the analog real world and convert it into a simultaneous, digital realityhas remained constant.

Now, the digital self can bring his reality with him in the form of portable music and video players, wireless smartphones and multimedia handsets, mobile game consoles, handheld computers and other new types of devices and appliancesmany of which can be connected to the Internet, anytime, anywhere. Indeed, DSP technology is reaching into every corner of the world and it still has a long way to go.

Ubiquitous technology
The pervasiveness of DSP technology into all aspects of today's society is not surprising, considering the technical advancements it has made over the years. What started as the basis for applications like the "Speak-and-Spell" device has evolved with high processing capabilities, ultralow power consumption, easy integration capabilities while remaining cost-effective.

Over the last 25 years, several dynamics have pushed DSP technology to the place where it now stands. Real-time processing performance, for example, has skyrocketed. When the first DSPs, such as that of TI were introduced, their frequencies were around 10-30MHz. Advancements in manufacturing process technologies, CMOS integration and device packaging, ultra-low power consumption, new real-time data processing techniques and other breakthroughs contributed to this increase in frequency performance. Today, the fastest single-core DSPs operate at speeds above 1GHz (1,000MHz).

The increasing real-time processing speeds of DSPs drove the proliferation of electronics throughout the society. Following on devices like the Speak-and-Spell and digital watches in the 1980s and 1990s, DSPs began to do the heavy lifting for a new breed of consumer applications. The cellphone is a good example of how DSP's combination of capabilities can transform how people talk to one another and even how they live their lives.

Another contributing factor to the rise of DSP technology is the drive toward smaller fabrication process geometries. Before, the process technologies applied to the first DSPs were in terms of millimeters, which was quickly dropped to microns. In the late 1990s, the industry buzzed about process technologies dropping below the 1?m, reaching the then uncharted territory of sub-micron processes. The new century yet saw DSP processes being measured in nanometers. And over the last few years, geometries have continued to shrink from 130nm to 90nm and 65nm. With 45nm processes technologies on the horizon, the industry is fast approaching sub-nanometer technologies (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The fabrication process node and power consumption for DSPs has steadily dropped from 1990s until today, contributing to the rise in mobile battery-powered electronic systems.

The continuously shrinking process node has had a profound effect on DSP capabilities which in turn, has affected the qualities of DSP-enabled systems. Smaller fabrication processes translates into greater economies of scale and increased cost-effectiveness as more chips are fabricated from the same amount of raw material. This plays out into lower price-points for DSP-based systems, expanding the market for these products. Smaller fabrication process technologies for DSP chips also trim power consumption, bringing high-order DSP processing within reach of portable systems that rely on the limited power supply of batteries. Today's most popular mobile consumer electronics would not be possible without DSP's low-power consumption. Smaller chip geometries and ultralow power consumption also make possible more densely populated circuit boards. With less heat dissipation, chips can be placed closer together. For example, DSP-based infrastructure communication systems have gone from circuit boards with just one DSP to boards with 10 or more DSPs and at least ten-times the capabilities in smaller form factors.

While the processing power of DSPs was increasing and the process geometries were decreasing, another development was taking place. DSP developers began integrating new functionality into DSP chips. Previously, DSPs were straight-forward computational engines with relatively few I/O capabilities. In the 1970s and 1980s, systems with DSP chips featured a complementary microprocessor or MCU that functioned as the host processor for the system. DSPs performed a specialized, often computationally-intense task while the host processor managed the system. In the 1990s, DSPs became highly integrated with multiple processing cores and varioous peripheral interfaces. This trend continued with the development of SoC DSP devices that integrated RISC and DSP processing cores, as well as peripheral interfaces and other types of functionality all on one piece of silicon (Figure 2).

Developing highly integrated DSP-based chips and SoCs continued to drive down the cost of electronics and, in the process, made new DSP applications accessible to wider consumer segments. High-level integration has placed downward pressure on product prices by reducing chip count and the required board size to implement a system. Moreover, chip-level integration has encouraged mobile applications because power consumption is reduced because there are fewer chips to power.

Figure 2: In recent years, DSPs have been combined with other types of processing cores in SoC, such as an entire residential gateway on a single chip.

The developments that have advanced DSP technology over the last 25 years have a direct relationship with the emergence of the digital self. The diversity and flexibility of personal electronic devices are giving individuals the freedom to express themselves through the gadgets they have. And by packing more real-time processing horsepower in less space with reduced power consumption, DSP technology brings the right combination of characteristics for mobile systems that are loosening the technological shackles on the digital self and removing restrictions of place and time.

Digital self-expression
A digital self resides in everyone. It is much more than the sum of the digital devices or applications it touches. The digital self is that portion of a personality that finds creative self-expression through digital devices, content and applications. Advancements in DSPs have expanded the possibilities of the digital self, enabling digital self-expression in ways that were inconceivable years ago.

Indeed, the digital self has been able to find self-expression in the digital home, enriched as it has been by DSPs. Home-based innovations, such as high-definition (HD) video, will continue and will be an important outlet for self-expression. In fact, new media codecs are already delivering lifelike, movie-quality video to the home at reduced network bit-rates. New multi-channel HD appliances supporting Blue-ray DVD movies, HD video conferencing, HD video surveillance and other creative HD media technologies are already on the horizon.

As fulfilling as a home's digital environment can be for the digital self, self-expression of any kind is not limited by place or time. Now, DSPs are unleashing the digital self from the walls and bricks-and-mortar that have bounded the digital home.

Unbounded access, expression
Connectivity, regardless of media format, must accelerate and become increasingly ubiquitous for the digital self to flourish. The industry has already witnessed the effects that DSPs have had on broadband bandwidth capacity and utilization. In just 20 years, data modems have become 7,000 times faster, from the hundreds of kilobits-per-second rates of 1985 to today's GPON and DOCSIS connectivity rates in the range of hundreds of megabits-per-second. LANs and cellular data technologies have undergone the same steep incline in throughput.

Perhaps just as critical as raw performance numbers, DSPs have exerted tremendous downward effects on system costs. Economies-of-scale, higher-order integration and other DSP advancements have driven down overall system costs and accelerated connectivity build-outs at the infrastructure level. Thus, the digital self's connectivity options have greatly expanded beyond one or a relatively few places.

New self-centered applications that take advantage of DSP-enabled networking and real-time processing capabilities are emerging and are moving toward higher degrees of personalization and mobility. MySpace and YouTube are indicative of the growing attraction of social networking on the Internet. The opportunities to search, learn, express and share ourselves in cyber space will only increase as social networking portals segment the marketplace and specialize their appeal to more finely defined demographic and societal groups.

The expression of the digital self through personal mobile devices is already well established. Mobile media players come in all shapes and sizes and with varying audio, video, communication and storage capabilities. DSP innovation has also been behind the move from basic single-channel, single-format media processing to players capable of processing audio, video, networking and other types of media simultaneously on multiple channels. Plus, the media can be in multiple formats, like MPEG, JPEG, MP3 and others.

Even when he is removed from his centralized depository of media content, the digital self still has ready access to songs, videos, games and other creative entertainment content. Interactive, group-oriented video games, once limited to stationary consoles and the confines of a certain place, can now be played virtually anywhere on mobile platforms that feature DSPs doing the communications, media and graphics processing.

Speak-and-Spell returns
Because the digital self is about self-expression, any technology layer that disrupts, delays or simply complicates the process will act as a deterrent to creative self-expression. Certainly, a command-line interface will not suffice, but even a graphical interface is no guarantee of simplicity. Luckily, DSP-enabled voice processing and voice recognition engines based on wideband codecs are evolving and will soon form the basis for a sophisticated voice-actuated control layer.

HD voice processing will eclipse today's carrier-grade or standard definition voice and provide the digital self with an easy and accessible way of interacting with its digital content and applications. HD voice readily captures all of the nuances and subtle inflections of daily conversations. Not only will the vocabulary of DSP-based voice recognition engines expand significantly, but they will also be able to understand the context and emotional content of the spoken word.

Reliability and interoperability are other dimensions that will have a critical effect on how the digital self interacts with technology. Pervasive monitoring systems will be based on the DSPs located in practically every infrastructure and end-point device in the digital world. The data gathered from DSPs in networks and user-facing systems will fuel intelligent processes that identify poor operational performance and initiate self-healing procedures to ensure the reliability of the digital self's technology.

DSP technology certainly played a key role as the digital self has stretched outward from its home base. On a practical level, DSP technologists have evolved an approach to their work that aligns with the digital self's expression. Rather than providing technology and expecting that lifestyles applications will conform to it, DSPs now apply their capabilities to the ubiquitous lifestyle apps expected by the digital self. Ultimately, the vast capabilities of DSP technology allow the digital self to remain rooted in that much needed sense of home without being confined by any one place.

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