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Can chip vendors set the agenda for the next big thing?

Posted: 21 Jan 2016 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:virtual reality? consumer electronics? VR? fabless chip?

Editor's Note: Chief International Correspondent Junko Yoshida met with Etron Technology, a Taiwan-based company that develops products mostly built around Virtual Reality. Read on to see how Etron demonstrates what VR can do for CE vendors.

After the annual gadget frenzy of the Consumer Electronics Show, where it's virtually impossible to focus on one product, or even one product category, picking one theme that's likely to drive the chip industry in 2016 and beyond strikes me as sheer guesswork.

It's easier to picture new consumer products that represent incremental changesingles and doublesin the industry. But a home run, out of the park? Who knows?

We do know that "consumer demand is sluggish across a number of categories from smartphones to tablets and laptops," as illustrated by the 2016 Accenture Digital Consumer Survey. More dire is the reality that "demand for the next generation of devices enabled by the Internet of Things (IoT) is not growing fast enough to offset declines in traditional categories," as the report put it.

During CES, I met with Etron Technology (Hsinchu, Taiwan), whose new products shown at its booth are mostly built around Virtual Reality. It suddenly struck me that Etron isn't really showing off chips. It's demonstrating what VR can do for CE vendors.

Nicky Lu

Nicky Lu with a 360-degree panorama camera

I was reminded of what it takes for fabless chip vendors these days to enter the consumer electronics market. Designing a good chip isn't enough. You need a platform and unique software algorithms that make your chip sing. More important, you need to prototype a system, and develop a business model around it that can inspire CE vendors.

The question then is: Can chip vendors set the agenda for the next big thing?

Just to be clear, Etron, a leading manufacturer of buffer memories, is known for its Known-Good-Die-Memory (KGDM) and Consumer Electronic DRAM (CEDRAM). Another Etron line of major products include USB3.0 host controller ICs, USB3.0 flash drive controller ICs, andlatelyUSB Type C products. The company's business is designed to leverage its home court advantage in Taiwan, the home of global PC vendors.

Nicky Lu, chairman of Etron, plans to go beyond PCs and Taiwan. Etron's latest ammunition is 3D imaging and gesture-sensing integrated webcam controller ICs. I've met a lot of CEOs and heard a lot of pitches in my life. But when a CEO starts to demonstrate his new chips/gadgets with a twinkle in his eye, well, I recognise the spark of hope for "the next big thing." Lu had the twinkle. For him, it is VR.

Lu was full of ideas, many already prototyped as good-looking consumer systems on display at his company's booth.

While I was interviewing the CEO, a small, unobtrusive Etron camera quietly recorded a 360-degree panorama of Lu and me. The system, as Lu explained, only requires a front and back camera, two image CMOS sensors, an Etron IC and Etron's software.

With Etron's surround-camera, dubbed "eYsGlobe," consumers can now easily record in 360 degrees without resorting to the multiple cameras that require images to be stitched together.

Smartphone with a stereo camera

Smartphone embedded with a stereo camera

This technology poses possibilities for Etron, among which is a drone equipped with a wide-angle (130-degree field of view) lens that can calculate distances (around 15m) or capture 3D depth-map data and measure object sizes. With Etron's 3D depth-map technology, new drones, flying beyond visual line of sight, can avoid objects, collisions and crashes, according to Etron. "Drones can also calculate distances and adjust their speed for smooth landings," said the company.

One-upping Intel's RealSense

Etron's3D imaging and gesture-sensing technologies reminded me of Intel's RealSense. As of last year, RealSense cameras have been already designed into several models of laptop and tablet computers from vendors such as Asus, HP, Dell, Lenovo and Acer.

While acknowledging that Intel has already paved the way for 3D depth-mapping technology, Lu stressed some differences. Etron's technology "saves power and is lower cost," he said. With its own 3D depth-map technology, Etron is gunning for not just the PC market but also "Android smartphones," explained Lu.

Intel's latest version of RealSense reportedly uses IR. The IR camera projects a stream of dots invisible to naked eye. On nearer objects, the dot pattern spreads out while, for farther objects, the pattern becomes denser. Using this displacement, the depth is calculated.

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