February 2014

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Shaping the Future - What Every Engineering Student Needs to Know about What's Coming Next

While 2013 saw some remarkable advances in MCU and wireless technologies that further enable the Internet of Things, 2014 promises the emergence of a more practical Internet of Useful Things.

In basic terms, the Internet of Things (IoT) gives people, animals or physical objects with unique identifiers the capability to transfer data over an information network that doesn't require human interaction or human-to-computer interaction. It involves wireless technologies, MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) and the Internet.

The Internet of Useful Things could mean a world where nearly every device continuously transmits data about operational minutiae. Although cloud-based applications will continue to evolve to help synthesize useful information from this massed data, real advances will come from more local processing of data and technologies that allow users to engage faster and more intuitively within their environments.

The trend toward a more useful world of connected devices hinges on a new class of smart sensors. In October 2013, IDC predicted that the Internet of Things will be an $8.9 trillion market in 2020 with 212 billion different devices connected. Others predict there will be a trillion sensors deployed by that date. Sensor integration and sensor fusion will continue to be the watchwords for these smart sensors. Three-axis accelerometers, 3-axis gyroscopes, and 3-axis magnetometers will combine to create a 9-axis inertial measurement unit offering greater functionality to engineers in a single small package. Sensor fusion software intelligently merges information from these and other types of sensors into a more accurate, unified description of the local surrounding environment or, more likely, an entire sensor network.

More sophisticated sensor systems will rely on a new class of processors - blending low power and high performance, and at a lower price to enable widespread use. They will drive applications as diverse as environmental monitors and medical instruments. Built around these processors, sensor systems can truly become intelligent sensor processing systems, analyzing data for important information and removing useless details.

Eight-bit MCUs will continue to dominate in the ultra-low-cost world. For instance, an electronic greeting card uses a 6502 variant that costs three cents in enormous quantities. ARM® based processors also will continue to dominate. Global Design-Fulfillment Distributor Mouser Electronics carries more than 2,500 ARM-based MCUs, surpassing the number of all other 32-bit MCUs combined. In 2014, look for high performance MCUs based upon the newest ARM v8 architecture featuring 64-bit capability from manufacturers such as ST Micro and Freescale. The Cortex™-A57 core will be the first of the new series of cores with this new architecture. One of the more exciting prospects set to appear in the emerging IoT and the new "wearables" market (a.k.a. "pervasive computing") is the Intel® Quark.

It will be a low-power SoC (system on chip) that will combine a performance processor with extreme low power operation and the ability to run off-the-shelf operating systems while taking advantage of the enormous Intel x86 ecosystem. Low power functions will continue to grow as more devices operate on batteries, sometimes for years on end. Previously that arena was dominated only by the smallest MCUs. Today some 32-bit ARM based devices have stop modes that need only 20 nA and can sleep at 0.5 μA. Run currents of 114 μA/MHz beat most 8-bit MCUs.


Portable and wearable computing promises a major shift in how people interact with computing devices and information. As with the concepts behind the Internet of Useful Things, wearable computing dramatically reduces the gap between information and the wearer. With seemingly every gadget going wireless, Wi-Fi in 2014 will start acting more like cellular technology using Hotspot 2.0. Introduced in mid-2013, the new authentication and hand-off technology enables automatic, seamless roaming between hotspots. This avoids annoying log-in screens while roaming from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another. Hotspot 2.0 support is available in Apple's iOS7 and Samsung's Galaxy S4. Hotspot 2.0 technology is now in limited deployment at O'Hare Airport in Chicago and in parts of New York City. When the infrastructure is in place, look for complementary applications to spread rapidly later in 2014 and beyond.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) will be common in new smartphones and other portable devices, enabling them to control and number of consumer, industrial and medical devices.

Advanced sensor technology is now being paired with end-to-end solutions in health monitoring. Major developments are under way. Early in 2014 the Continua Health Alliance will make public its lightweight protocol that works with mobile devices. GSMA (the association of mobile operators) has targeted mobile health as a growth area. The standards and regulatory bodies are no longer dragging their feet. Bluetooth 4.0 will play a major role in the health-monitoring segment.

Health and fitness buffs already wear monitors that record their heart rates and jogging distances, coupling that to a PC to analyze the results. Wearable wireless medical devices will include accelerometers to warn of falls, heart monitoring, and insulin pumps and glucose monitors for diabetics. Each of these devices can connect to a mobile phone or PC via Bluetooth. If necessary, they could alert their doctor over the cellular network.

ABI Research predicts that by 2018 the wearable electronics market will account for 485 million devices sold yearly. Many of these will be medical monitoring devices worn by a tech savvy population of baby boomers.


Few industries have undergone such a rapid change in their core technology and product offerings as lighting. Advances in LEDs will redefine lighting. LED market sales topped $4.8 billion in 2012, and a 45% annual growth rate is expected through 2019. Low lifecycle cost has become a winning argument in the commercial lighting market, but remains a hard sell for consumers. A continuing push for low-power lighting in 2014 should help to expand the LED lighting market. Federal and state rebates are expected to continue, encouraging people to switch to LED lighting.

Fueled by market acceptance, solid-state lighting manufacturers are quickly translating innovative technologies into mainstream products. Semiconductor technology advances are enabling commercialization devices that dramatically reduce the size and power consumption of more powerful LED driver ICs. At the same time, market economies and improved manufacturing techniques are driving down the cost of, and footprint of, LEDs. The result is an environment ripe for new ways for using LEDs throughout 2014.

The synergy of solid-state lighting and digital control could produce new applications. LED lighting control requires that simple on/off switches be replaced with communications and user interface logic that can talk to every socket and every light. Lighting solutions from different manufacturers need to be interchangeable particularly in consumer applications. Currently there is no standard for LED applications, but this may be resolved in 2014 via the low cost and widely deployed wireless technologies already commonplace. With smart phones many already carry high-level controllers so one expensive part of the equation is largely solved. Whether wireless control will standardize around Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or ZigBee remains to be seen. This year may well be a tipping point for standardization.

In a novel approach, LEDs are finding application in flooring through partnerships between technology companies and manufacturers– such as the agreement between Philips and Desso for integration of LEDs with light transmissive carpets. "Solid-state" carpets will literally lead the way to new applications in buildings – guiding people around buildings and to safety exits and broadly placing useful information just where and when it's most needed.

Perceptual Tech

While enhanced hardware solutions continue to emerge for smart sensors, systems designers are looking to surround users with a more natural environment that provides an immersive experience via IoT devices and the cloud. Perceptual technology will gain broader appeal and further penetration in familiar computing systems.

Beyond applications in identification and security, perceptual technology promises more powerful interaction through eye movement and gesture control. Although camera-based gesture control systems have matured in gaming, perceptual technology offers opportunities for broader applications and more exact control.

These key technologies – the Internet of Useful Things, perceptual technology, wearable computing, and LEDs – are quickly adapting to meet real needs of users as efficiently as possible. This is where the industry is headed and Mouser will be at the forefront. This year Mouser will be introducing new products around these and other new technologies. Mouser features detailed technical articles to help engineers navigate an increasingly complex design landscape. Visit Mouser.com - the go-to place for the latest products and technology information for engineers, educators, students, hobbyists and anyone curious about engineering.

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