CES 2018: AI, Blockchains, and Emerging Memory Technologies Will Make Their Mark On Consumer Electronics

Home and office users will reap the benefits of smarter connected devices at the 2018 CES

3 min read
A picture of CES attendees looking above their head at a brightly illuminated arch made of digital displays
Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Consumer devices are getting smarter, they can follow our instructions, help us find our way and even assist us in driving our cars.  They are listening to our sentences and following our instructions.  These capabilities are enabled by the application of artificial intelligence—particularly machine learning—using ever-evolving electronics and software.  At this year’s CES show in Las Vegas I expect AI to be enabling and enhancing an increasing number of consumer devices and services.  AI will enable and control Internet of Things-based products, whether these are automated vehicles, voice-controlled devices in the home, or an increasing array of cloud-based consumer services.

In particular, this will be a banner week for AI-assisted transportation. There will be lot of advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) demonstrations and product introductions on the show floor, as well as soon to be on-the-road autonomous vehicles.  Uber, Google, and now even the major US car companies plan to deploy fleets of self-driving taxis, so they—and the companies that make the components for these fleets—will be showing off their wares and what they are capable of.

Another field to watch is virtual reality. Major media companies as well as independent video and game companies will be showcasing the latest developments and applications of immersive content, which has still not yet reached the point of mass adoption.  In addition, augmented reality will be playing an increasing role in consumer electronics for monitoring and control of devices.  I expect to see applications and hardware for AR applications such as smart glasses, various haptic devices, and other ways to increase our sensory connection with digital content and our physical environment. 

I also expect there to be growth in the types of devices that people can use to interface with data and digital content. In addition to the usual phones, tablets and watches we’re familier with today, there will be a move to even smaller or more integrated devices such as digital rings and electronics embedded into clothing. There are also likely to be prototype demos and conceptual designs for integrating electronics with the human body (including brain controlled electronics).  These developments combined with advances in personal robotics will enable new ways to monitor and enhance health and safety. This will have important long-term implications for countries with aging populations, as well as helping people with various disabilities.

Security and privacy, alongside newly emerging concepts of ownership, will also be important themes at the 2018 CES.  Blockchain technology is emerging as a way to do more than create crypto-currencies: It may come to play an important role in intellectual property protection and ownership as well as the detection of counterfeit products.  Privacy is emerging as a major requirement in many countries, and consumer devices will play a significant role in controlling and protecting access to our personal information through encryption and other means.  I expect to see a lot of discussions in the conference rooms surrounding the show floor regarding the legal implications of software licenses, new definitions of digital ownership, and the right to repair one’s digital property in the blockchain age.

Another big driver of technology is the increasing need to process and store data, whether centrally in clouds, at the edge of networks (sometimes called fog computing), or locally on devices.  This need, and the aforementioned popularity  of AI-enabled applications, are stoking a demand for faster processors, digital memory, and bigger and cheaper storage.  So CES will see major memory and storage companies demonstrating how they intend to enable the next generation of non-volatile memory and storage. 

These products will include conventional hard disk drives and flash memory, but also include emerging non-volatile memory technologies, such as resistive RAM (ReRAM) and magnetic RAM (MRAM).  In addition, cloud services companies will be extolling the virtues of their compute and storage capabilities at CES, particularly for consumers or for companies selling products and services to consumers. What impact the recently announced Meltdown and Spectre bugs will have on their announcements remains to be seen.

The IEEE will have a significant presence at the 2018 CES in Las Vegas. On the show floor we’ll have a boot with representatives from many IEEE technical societies, communities and affinity groups. And immediately after CES, the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society will have its flagship International Conference on Consumer Electronics (ICCE), which will explore the technologies that will create the consumer products and services in the next 5 years.

About the Author: Tom Coughlin is an IEEE Fellow, active in the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society, and the 2018 President-Elect of IEEE-USA

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.