News

Embedded chips spurring new products

Mark Boslet
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)
Gordon He, sales engineer for Lex Systems, in Santa Fe Springs, shows an embedded DVR board at his vendor booth during the Embedded Systems Conference at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California, April 3, 2007. (Karen T. Borchers/San Jose Mercury News/MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Think of sneakers with GPS, or satellite location technology. Or a monitor for a child's room with an infrared light to let parents see in the dark. Even pill-sized digital cameras that let doctors view a patient's insides.

Embedded chips and electronics are enabling a new generation of innovative product designs.

At the Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose last week, manufacturers showed off their latest chips and parts that should help transform an industry long associated with industrial machinery, automobile circuitry and cell phones.

"We're on the cusp" of lots of new non-traditional uses for embedded chips and electronics, says James Gilman, an analyst at Cross Research.

Embedded parts are designed deep inside electronic systems, often to perform specific functions, such as completing a cell phone call.

Manufacturers at the conference, attended by about 11,000 people, boasted of faster and cheaper parts that use power more efficiently.

In a room packed with exhibit booths, engineers took apart a Segway scooter and a Toyota Prius, exposing the electronics inside and illustrating how pervasive embedded chips have become in everyday life.

For Joel Sommer, a systems engineer at Rockwell Collins, embedded chips have already enabled clever products for private aircraft. His company already sells a touch-screen device that lets passengers open window shades, turn on lights and control a DVD player. Within the past four months, it has also begun marketing gear for in-flight wireless Internet access.

Other new product concepts are under way. John Newman, at sales director at Quickfilter Technologies, says his customers are using tiny embedded components to create electronic sensors for trains. The devices detect when cargo is being treated too roughly, potentially heading off damage.

As chips and components made by embedded systems designers become more capable, a new crop of product makers is tackling more imaginative designs, say executives.

The market opportunities could be considerable. "Some of these markets are going to be huge," says Jordan Selburn, principal analyst at research firm iSuppli.

Jordan says about 100,000 pill-sized digital cameras were sold in 2005. The pill-shaped devices are swallowed to help doctors view a patient's insides and to diagnose stomach ailments "By 2015, (the market) could easily be 100 million units," he said.

At the same time, the industry won't transform itself over night. "This is a very mature business now," said Brian Fuller, editor in chief at the electronic magazine EE Times, "The battle in this maturing market is to get the message out to non -traditional places. This is not an insignificant battle."

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