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The Best AI at CES 2023

From NeRFs to translation, AI is coming to an app near you

4 min read
Nvidia Canvas is used to create a complex sene with a few brushstrokes.

Nvidia Canvas uses AI to create complex scenary with a few brushstrokes.

Nvidia

AI was a hot trend at CES 2023, though not due to new AI models or research breakthroughs. The Consumer Electronics Show is focused on, well, consumers. The most alluring AI demos at the show target a specific use. Yet this isn’t a detriment to AI’s potential: on the contrary, I’d argue it’s precisely what makes AI so alluring this year. The field is mature enough to move beyond demos and offer tangible improvements to countless consumer devices, apps, and services. Here are a few that stood out:

AI hardware comes to affordable Windows laptops

AMD came to CES 2023 with a full salvo of mobile processors. This includes the Ryzen 7040 series, which packs the first dedicated AI processor in an x86 processor: Ryzen AI. It finally provides a Windows alternative to the AI hardware found in Apple Silicon. AMD claims the Ryzen AI processor is up to 20 precent quicker, and 50 percent more efficient, than the AI hardware on Apple’s M2 chip.

A slide detailing the specifications of AMD's Ryzen AI processorRyzen AI is a dedicated engine for AMD’s Ryzen 7040 mobile processors. AMD

The Ryzen AI processor won’t beat big GPUs like Nvidia’s RTX, AMD’s Radeon, or Intel’s Xe. However, even the least powerful GPUs require 50 to 75 watts at full tilt, and top-tier cards can exceed 400 watts. The Ryzen 7040 processors which include Ryzen AI have a total thermal design power of 35 to 45 watts, with the AI processor accounting for just a fraction of that.

And AMD says it’s committed to keeping Ryzen AI on its roadmap for future products. That should mean a consistent cadence of improvements and innovation like AMD’s Ryzen CPUs and Radeon GPUs. It’s still early days for Ryzen AI, but it’s a big step in the right direction.

AI-driven speech makes its voice heard

Speech morphing and translation often doesn’t demo (unless you’re Google), but a pair of AI speech startups made a strong showing at CES.

A smartphone app used to translate speech in real time.Verbum is an app for AI-driven translation of text and speech.Verbum

OneMeta AI brought Verbum, a real-time speech translation web app that is currently available. CEO Saúl Leal sat me down at a video chat with Dayanna Rojas, the company’s head of product, who called in from Chile. She spoke Spanish, while I spoke English, with Verbum translating: first through text, then AI-generated speech. It was a convincing demo made more impressive by show floor’s hectic audio environment. Leal says the service can also work over phone, even without an Internet connection.

I also spoke with Martin Ahlers, VP of Sales at Speechmorphing. In addition to translation, Speechmorphing can either modulate a person’s voice to sound like another or create speech from text input. The service can train using existing voice recording to reproduce any voice for which there’s sufficient data. Yes, that means you can sound like Morgan Freeman. But the app can also return voice to people who have lost some or all of their ability to speak.

Nvidia Canvas gets a 360-degree upgrade

NVIDIA Canvas Update: 360 Degree Environment Maps for Your 3D ScenesNvidia

I first tried Nvidia Canvas, which generates impressive 2D landscapes with just a few brushstrokes, at CES 2020. It was impressive even then, offering the artistically disinclined (like myself) a chance to create attractive scenery. At CES 2023, Nvidia introduced Canvas 360, which adds support for creating 360-degree panoramic images.

This might seem like a gimmick: the 360-degree camera fad didn’t take off, after all. But Canvas 360’s purpose goes well beyond panoramic pictures. Its real value will be mined by 3D artists hoping to quickly create an appropriate background for a 3D scene. An architect might use it to create scenery similar to the environment where a client wants to build, while a game designer could rapidly iterate on background scenery to change the vibe of a level.

3D scanning gets NeRF’ed

KIRI Engine, an Android, iOS, and web app that lets creators use photogrammetry for professional-grade scans of 3D objects, is about to get an upgrade: support for neural radiance fields, better known as NeRFs.

KIRI Engine will use NeRFs to create 3D scenes from photos and videos.youtu.be

This technique can create 3D objects and scenes based on a photo or video. Unlike photogrammetry, which requires multiple photos taken at different angles, NeRFs use AI to estimate hidden portions of the object. The resulting 3D model can be moved, resized, rotated, and viewed from any angle.

NeRFs already made waves in 2022, but KIRI Engine will bring them to Android and iPhone devices. KIRI representatives told me the feature will launch within the first few months of 2023.

Eye contact is tough on video calls, so why not fake it?

Maintaining Eye Contact in a Video Conference with NVIDIA MaxineNvidia

In 2013, Microsoft Research showed me a secretive demo of its attempts to build a webcam hidden directly behind an LCD screen. The goal? Make direct eye contact possible on virtual web conferences. It worked, mostly, and a few smartphone makers tried similar tactics—but it proved difficult to execute well.

Nvidia has an alternate solution: just use AI to fake it. This feature, known as eye correction, will become part of Nvidia Broadcast, the company’s suite of software utilities designed for video and livestreaming creators. It automatically fakes the position of your eye so that it appears you’re looking at the camera.

A similar feature will also be available to AMD laptops with the new Ryzen AI processor. Microsoft’s Studio Effects (including eye correction), introduced to select Windows devices in 2022, are compatible with Ryzen AI.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

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

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.

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