ISSCC notebook – Back to the future

By Paul Dempsey |  No Comments  |  Posted: February 23, 2012
Topics/Categories: Commentary, Conferences  |  Tags: , , , ,

The International Solid State Circuits Conference is one of the most important technology shows, but you’ve gotta be careful in using it to cite market trends.

Case in point. Much of the buzz this year was around Intel’s use of finFETs (or as it prefers ‘TriGate’) at 22nm and rightly so. But finFET papers have been a staple of ISSCC for years. It’s all about the gap between necessary scientific research and commercial viability/necessity.

So treat what follows with caution. However, one thing I did note at the conference was a subtle shift back toward publicly driven markets.

OK, what do I mean here. We all know that public research funding – certainly outside Asia – has been dropping, with the private sector being expected to pick up the tab. However, there are markets where, often as either regulators or consumers, governments do heavily influence the agenda. At this year’s ISSCC, a couple immediately sprang to mind.

First, digital health. Research here continues at pace because companies and academics are working toward that wonderful thing – the distress purchase. With aging populations and unsustainable healthcare costs, advanced monitoring and other remote diagnostic technologies will be needed. And it’s not just Medicare administrators or those in monolithic public healthcare; insurers also need to drive down costs.

However, while noting impressive ISSCC papers from the likes of Belgium’s imec research institute – with an especially interesting approach to overcoming the noise and integration issues that confront ambulatory monitoring – and Toumaz of the UK, it’s still clear that government is a problem here also. The R&D must go on, yet the necessary approvals regimes for advanced medical electronics remain vague. Still that problem will be overcome, hence the broader enthusiasm.

Second, intelligent/autonomous transportation. The private sector has already grown both the automotive and airborne versions of this space into multibillion dollar industries. This though is a crossroads year.

We’ve already noted that the US unmanned aviation systems (UAS) market is being opened up to civil applications. However, it’s also a big year for automotive intelligent transportation systems (ITS) in the US, with major next generation technology trials due to take place in Ann Arbor, Michigan this Summer. These will inform a final Department of Transportation decision on future US federal participation in and use of ITS, due during 2013. Similar projects also continue in Europe and Asia.

So, it should again have not been that surprising that both Toshiba and Korea’s KAIST technology think-tank had interesting papers on vehicle vision, in-car and in-UAS respectively.

But, just to make a broad point, these kinds of strand within ISSCC did seem more active than in recent years past compared to increasingly dominant mobile comms and consumer slices of the program. And much of that has to be down to the state of the global economy.

Is research moving back toward a less consumer electronics-led model? Or perhaps those more recently hot sectors have gone off the boil and face not just market but also technical pressures?

It’s actually hard to say, but certainly worth thinking about. Overall, though, it left the feeling of an ISSCC 2012 that was in some ways reverting to a more traditional form.

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