How fast can you turn around a new design? In the consumer electronics business, variables like customer whim and component pricing can change so fast that a product is often outdated by the time it hits retail shelves.
Sound Vision's completed M1 kit is a
So why is it that in recent months, products like the Concord EyeQ and Konica E-Mini have enjoyed success as sub-$200 digital cameras? How do these companies manage to quickly pack performance into new products?
Answer: they don't. In the digital camera industry (and others), market pressures have created a new niche—outsourced engineering.
Sound Vision (Wayland, MA) develops integrated circuits for signal-processing products, then sells the production-ready designs to OEMs. Last spring it released the M1 digital camera reference design—the core of those successful Concord and Konica cameras.
Priced to make cameras in the $150 range, the M1 combines Motorola's 1.3 megapixel CMOS image sensor with Sound Vision's own Clarity 2—a custom ASIC, 48 MHz, ARM RISC processor. In this age of specialization, even Sound Vision outsourced the processing core of the chip, to the U.K. company ARM. Sound Vision did design its own ASIC (application specific integrated circuit).
The M1 reference design is inside this G3
camera manufactured by Grandtech Indsutrial Ltd. (Hong Kong) and branded
and distributed by World Wide Licenses Ltd. (Hong Kong).
Instead of using a blank slate for each new design, Sound Vision taps its library of intellectual property to quickly combine existing design elements for brand new applications. It's the ultimate in DFM (design for manufacturability), since the finished product is built out of existing, tried-and-true parts. For the M1, the company combined its own autofocus, white-balancing algorithm, sensor code, and memory module.
"We recombine previous technologies, so we don't always have to start from scratch," says Sal Passanisi, VP of engineering. "We mix and match software, firmware, and other intellectual property. And that enables us to provide more innovation, such as adding MP3, or achieving low-cost megapixel images."
The company manages this vast store of engineering ideas with Microsoft's (Redmond, WA) Visual SourceSafe—a network-based version control system (VCS). This database tracks the revision history for each file checked into the system, whether schematics, bills-of-materials, source code, or manufacturing recommendations, says Passanisi.
In a typical design cycle, a hardware design engineer will use Orcad (from Cadence, San Jose, CA) to create schematics and BOMs. A firmware/software engineer might use Visual SlickEdit (from SlickEdit Inc., Morrisville, NC) and Microsoft Visual Studio to write and compile his code. Then they'd meet to do real-time debugging with an in-circuit emulator (ICE) and Nucleus from ATI (Accelerated Technology Inc., Mobile, AL), the operating system that runs inside the Clarity chip. And the VCS tracks every step along the way.
One of Passanisi's design decisions for the M1 was to use a CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) sensor instead of CCD (charge coupled device) sensor. While CCD is the mature, incumbent technology, CMOS has the advantages of cheaper fabrication and greater power efficiency. The CMOS drawback is poor image quality, so Sound Vision's challenge was to correct the problem. It did that by coding algorithms for the Clarity chip, and hiring ARM to build it.
Another decision was using an electronic—not mechanical—shutter, lowering the product's complexity, and therefore its cost. Instead of physically blocking light from reaching the sensor, an electronic shutter uses onboard electronics to take a snapshot of light for a shutter-speed period of time. Each pixel's sensitivity to light can be switched on or off, Passanisi says.
The rapid design kit (RDK) built by Sound Vision is a collection of hardware and software components, sparked by ideas that can come from sales, marketing, the CEO, or anywhere in the company. They can cook almost anything, since they know the ingredients are already there.
"We don't come up with a product and then look into our bag of tricks," explains Scott Hunter, marketing communications director. "We look into our bag of tricks, and then we ask—How can we use our unique Lego blocks to build something that the competition can't?"
For example, although the M1 project is complete, Passanisi is still brainstorming variations on the theme: "The flexibility of using an ARM-based RISC processor is that we're not locked into just being a camera," he says. "Clarity is a programmable ASIC, so we can use one kind of technology to do totally different things." Future applications could include a portable karaoke player (displaying lyrics on a screen while playing sound files aloud), video camera, 3D bar code wand, voice capability (so appliances can understand spoken orders), and visual capability (so an appliance like a microwave oven could scan the bar code on a food label and know how to cook it).
"Sound Vision is less a brand than a technology provider," says Mitchell Rosenberg, VP of marketing. "We have three specialties: we solve problems in the signal (all detector electronics have flaws, so we use firmware algorithms to detect and correct them), we design our own ASIC chip but don't fabricate it, and we design cameras but don't manufacture them."
Under this approach, Sound Vision is the product manager and technologist for each of its customers. Acting as a systems integrator, it supplies a bill of materials, schematic, layout, component data, and reference design.
At the end of this process, it delivers a "just-add-water" product, while satisfying its customers' most frequent demand—"the top three design constraints in consumer electronics are price, price, and price," says Rosenberg.
So what's left for a customer to do? About a dozen companies have bought Sound Vision's M1 camera design, which they differentiate in the market through industrial design, size, user interface, and price.
"Indeed, the Sound Vision solution has allowed our marketing company to shorten the development cycle," says Elaine Wong, general manager of computer products, World Wide Licenses Ltd. (Kowloon, Hong Kong). Her company distributed the G3-brand camera, using the M1 reference design.
"But reality sometimes has complications, so there are still limitations, such as customization to be done for different markets." World Wide demands close communication and flexibility from Sound Vision to achieve this. But they're able to handle the challenge by collaborating during the design phase. "This is crucial for the design company to work with the marketing company," she says.
This kind of agility is exactly what Sound Vision founder Bob Caspe has in mind. "We run on the concept of a virtual business, since we have an intellectual-property (IP) toolbox, and pull pieces together to quickly evolve new products."
"Having an IP toolbox enables rapid development turns," he says. "So we quickly spun a product, and finished testing, then presented it to our customer in condition ready for manufacturing. Doing any ONE of those things in a six month period would be difficult!"
And true to Sound Vision's fast turnaround strategy, in September it released the next-generation reference design—the M2. Hitting the market just 18 weeks after its predecessor M1, this new product is a 1.3 megapixel digital camera with 1.8-inch color LCD screen and sound-enabled mpeg mode, all for the same price.