It's a digital world. Actually, no, it's an analog world that humans, wanting to investigate and control, translate to the digital realm in order to interpret and manipulate. And that's okay—as long as doing so makes sense.
Is Analog the Answer?
GTronix, a company officially launched just yesterday, thinks that we have been overly zealous in pursuing A/D conversion, saying that it's more efficient to work as much as possible in the analog realm, delegating to the digital domain only tasks that can be best handled there.
The concept of mixed-signal processing is not new, but GTronix seems to be stretching the idea further than the market has previously. The impetus for this comes from the idea that more sensors require more power (GTronix says that with its technology sensors can chew up orders of magnitude less energy--sometimes thousands of times less) and the observation that the trend toward more features—some of which (free-fall detection, for instance) are necessarily "always on"—cause a need for increased clock rate, and thus boost power requirements, further.
"For more than 20 years," says CEO Hubert Engelbrechten, "the industry has been applying analog signal conditioning, data conversion and DSP- or MPU-based processors in the sensory signal chain to convert real-world stimuli into usable data."
GTronix's approach, according to Engelbrechten, "is completely in the analog domain and applies adaptive analog techniques as the solution. It will allow us to offload the processor and integrate the entire sensory processing chain into a single CMOS chip or module. Devices based on that technology will enable our customers to create lower-cost portable consumer products that require very fast and efficient real-time signal processing."
During its corporate launch yesterday, GTronix unveiled its APT technology, which leverages a combination of three elements: analog algorithms; a programmable floating gate transistor structure; and a unique circuit design technique for creating signal processing functions. According to GTronix, the underlying breakthrough was in the development of a very compact programmable structure, which made the creation of new circuits possible and practical. For example, common signal processing functions that typically are implemented with DSPs, now can be implemented in the analog domain, with less power and at lower cost.
Might GTronix's "software-free" approach also be flexibility free? (The company uses ASICs, application specific integrated circuits, to address the need for custom processing.)
For some applications, perhaps—but I doubt this will be a liability in the markets the company plans to target initially: User-interface sensory applications in consumer products, including cell phones, wired/wireless headsets, PDAs, laptop computers and audio/video personal electronic devices. (Eventually, the company will address sensor-based applications in automotive, industrial and medical markets.)
Progress has not halted in other realms that address some of the same concerns GTronix does. Sensors' senior editor Melanie Martella points out, for instance, that components in general have been shrinking dramatically—and the power required to operate them has taken a similar downward plunge. "Analog Devices, Microchip, Texas Instruments, Maxim, and others tend to stress part size (shrinking fast) and both low voltage supply ranges and low current draw for their parts," she explains. GTronix's approach is another necessary step along that path--in the right direction. I'll be eager for the product announcement that GTronix says will be coming in six months.