Everyone does an annual predictive piece in early January, but who says that's when it has to be done? Who says January is the start of a new year, anyway? Certainly not all calendars. Today is my birthday, so that is the start of a new year for me. So, with no further ado, here are my predictions for the coming year and beyond in microcontrollers.
The first trend I see is increasing emphasis on lower power operation. No surprises here; it's a trend that has been unfolding over the last few years. Much effort has gone into creating low-power semiconductor processes and lowering core operating voltages, even to the point of experimenting with near-threshold operation of transistors, which I mentioned in my blog Millivolt MCUs Emerging. But it is where the power reductions are coming from next that I see as emerging trends in MCU design.
One source of power reduction is a rise in autonomous peripherals in MCUs. Examples can be found in the Energy Micro EFM32 and the Infinion XMC4000 I saw at Design West. (See: Tales From the Show Floor and More Tales From the Show Floor.) We've all gotten used to peripherals that demand CPU support when they have reached some goal, like a counter reaching zero, in order to take action.
The emerging approach to peripheral design, however, is allowing the peripherals to interact autonomously to relieve the CPU of support duties. So, instead of a counter triggering an interrupt and having the ISR then have the ADC take a sample, the two peripherals can speak directly to one another and have the counter trigger the ADC, which then stores its results into memory, all without CPU intervention.
The thinking here is that by operating autonomously, the peripherals allow the CPU to go to sleep to save power while they merrily hum along performing the routine tasks. Only when something interesting happens will the CPU wake up to take action. In the Energy Micro case, this autonomy applies to analog sensors, as well. The chip can monitor sensors while the CPU is asleep and trigger action only if sensor readings fall into the "interesting" category. The result is continual monitoring at very low power draw, ideal for wireless sensor applications.
Wireless, of course, is another of the emerging trends for MCUs that everyone can already see. What that trend is triggering in low-power MCU design, however, is an increased focus on reducing the start-up time of MCU operation. When the MCU is in sleep mode and is awoken by an incoming message, the time it takes to become fully active and ready to take action represents power consumed to little benefit. The faster an MCU can awake, take action, and go back to sleep, the less average power the device will use. In some cases, a quicker response time can outweigh a higher dynamic power demand when comparing the average power of two MCUs in a given application.
Both the autonomous peripheral and rapid startup are development trends now being expressed in new MCU designs, and I expect the trends to continue until they become standard practice.
What I see as the next big thing, still a few years out, is embedding vision into MCU designs. Vision systems today need more processing power than MCUs can provide, but the advent of clever sensor designs like the Kinect mean that MCUs might soon gain a toehold in vision-enabled device design. (See: Toy Transforms Into Novel UI.) Those who like to prepare ahead of time might start looking into the basics of vision systems and begin thinking about how to apply it to smaller, MCU-based designs.
Those are the images from my crystal ball. What do you see as emerging trends in MCU design?