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CLIENT: IMAGINATION TECHNOLOGIES
Dec. 9, 2011: Embedded Computing Design
As more and more devices become connected to the cloud of ubiquitous Internet access, engineers are looking to capitalize on this connectivity without having to develop the technologies themselves. Using a set of common APIs and IP platforms to enable communication with cloud services can help engineers deliver always-connected products with enhanced functionality.
What do you think of when you hear the word "cloud?" Marketing speak? Just another way to reduce costs? A revolution in the delivery of services? A better way to run a business and design products? Whatever engineers think about the concept of the cloud, they will soon face a concrete problem: taking a previously stand-alone product and turning it into a connected device.
The cloud is an inevitable trend that is already becoming mainstream. Our society is increasingly online, with consumers using computer browsers, second screening in front of TVs, and accessing e-mail and social media when mobile. Ever-faster home, business, and mobile Internet access has led to an age when logging on is the fastest and most engaging way of getting work done and being entertained.
Tablets, phones, and TVs grab the headlines now, but in the near future everything will be connected. The next wave will be in consumer electronics, as radios, cameras, photo frames, printers, and more become connected to the cloud. Once the big money/big R&D consumer electronics and home automation segments have blazed the trail, everything else will follow. Vertical industries such as retail, health care, finance, utilities, and instrumentation will all increasingly use wireless, with cellular or Wi-Fi machine-to-machine as their primary connectivity option.
In evaluating the use cases for Flow Technology, a comprehensive IP platform family that connects devices to the cloud using both Internet and broadcast channels, engineers considered a simple question: What would be an ideal offering for time-starved engineering teams who need the advantages of cloud connectivity but gain no upside from developing those technologies themselves?
The answer was an end-to-end infrastructure for connecting devices to cloud-based services. While the relative ease of providing on-chip Wi-Fi (and ultimately other connectivity standards) already enables a device to connect to the cloud, several important questions remain:
What URL does the device connect to?
Each of these questions represents a complex issue that not every company has the resources to resolve.
The key to successfully enabling devices to easily communicate with cloud services is to develop a set of APIs allowing anyone writing an app on a connected device to answer all of the aforementioned questions, as well as to be extensible to many more functions.
Using those APIs, devices can connect to an ecosystem of third-party partners providing payment systems, streamed content, health care, security, and more. For example, 7digital (content) and MiPay (payment) are helping provide those services to device manufacturers.
The APIs must talk to both the cloud services and the hardware devices. To enable this, Imagination Technologies created two bookending technologies: a cloud portal (FlowWorld) and a connected processor (METAflow), illustrated in Figure 1. The idea behind the model is that the portal's unique fit to the connected processor enables a higher degree of efficiency, consistency, and utility for developing devices delivering real-time and always-connected services.
Figure 1: The FlowWorld portal and METAflow connected processor connect consumer and M2M devices to cloud services via APIs.
Simple to implement, APIs enable ecosystem partners to rapidly develop and deploy a diverse range of embedded applications supported by Web services. Any silicon device manufacturer can license these technologies, or product manufacturers can buy silicon devices from licensees and then use them to connect to generic or customized Web services created using APIs.
Flow Technology includes highly integrated, licensable, connected processor IP platform hardware complemented by a range of Internet-based enabling technologies and a portfolio of cloud-based resources/services. The technology includes essential baseline product services such as Update for in-field robust software updates, as well as enhanced services such as Radio for adding advanced features to end products. A portal delivers both baseline and enhanced services using a series of APIs through which partners can centrally control and manage service configurations for any METAflow-based connected product.
Thanks to an advanced template-based implementation, the portal can be configured to enable service providers to maximize the solution's services while creating a highly customized user experience and retaining compatibility with other Flow Technology-based products.
Engineers experimented with these technologies in Imagination Technologies' consumer electronics brand, PURE, and reported any issues before the product family was offered to a wider customer base.
The portal powers the PURE Lounge cloud music service (Figure 2), which delivers radio, streaming, and apps to connected processor-enabled radios. Using this kind of platform, developers can prototype and deploy truly connected products and solutions without requiring the incredibly broad range of engineering and commercial know-how and resources usually only found in the industry's biggest players.
Figure 2: The PURE Lounge, a FlowWorld portal, allows developers to prototype and deploy connected products without requiring expertise in cloud technologies.
Other devices can help those looking to solve the hardware side of the equation. For example, the XENIF TZ1090 connected processor from Toumaz combines a Meta HTP or MTP processor running Linux, MeOS, Android, or other third-party Operating System (OS) with a highly optimized Ensigma UCCP communications IP core running 802.11 Wi-Fi.
The Meta HTP221-dp2 Minimorph development platform (Figure 3) helps engineers gain experience with this technology. The 10 cm x 10 cm board supports the full set of Flow APIs and includes interfaces and peripherals such as an SD card, Wi-Fi, HDMI, and USB, plus headers for a range of TV or radio tuners.
Figure 3: The Minimorph development platform supports the full set of Flow APIs to enable connected devices.
The Minimorph software development kit includes the CODESCAPE debugger with Linux application debug support. It ships with working tutorials and documentation plus examples that familiarize developers with Meta's architecture and DSP features. Debugging is accessed via an Ethernet or JTAG port.
Minimorph includes a port of the latest open-source Linux OS for Meta processors, allowing developers to access both the wealth of application and device support available for Linux-based systems and the real-time 32-bit DSP capabilities of the Meta processor.
The increasingly broad array of highly portable application platforms such as Linux, Android, and sophisticated Real-Time Operating Systems (RTOSs) is prompting companies to reevaluate how they can create the next wave of connected embedded products. Ultimately, the best result for the industry will be a set of common platforms, APIs, and devices on which cloud products are built.
If this happens, as it has in the graphics space where APIs such as OpenGL have standardized interactions between GPUs and applications, then engineers can focus on their unique domain values and create compelling products that are enriched and revitalized by this ubiquitous connectivity technology. These cloud-based devices will deliver functionality using an optimal mix of local and Internet resources.
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