Chips to take stage at two S.F. conferences

At two events in San Francisco, chip designers are set to discuss flexible screens, artificial skin, robots and better, cheaper wireless.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
Chip designers will converge on San Francisco next week to discuss their ideas about new types of flash memory and about bringing sight to the blind.

The International Solid State Circuits Conference, the granddaddy of semiconductor research conferences, and the semiannual Intel Developer Forum will both take place during the week of Feb. 15 in roughly the same location.

While topics and attendance at the two events will overlap, the two conferences are somewhat distinct. At ISSCC, researchers from large companies and academia present research papers on cutting-edge chip design concepts spanning the gamut of the semiconductor industry--communications, microprocessors, memory, nonvolatile memory and wireless systems to name a few--that may come to the market over the next five years.

Here's information on some of the notable papers at the conference, which runs from Feb. 15 to 19:

• On Tuesday researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of California at Santa Cruz will discuss human clinical trials of a silicon retinal prosthesis for patients suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration, otherwise known as old-age blindness. Later in the week, University of Tokyo scientists will show their progress in making "a flexible, large area pressure sensor suitable for artificial skin applications."

• Researchers from MIT, Sony and Infineon, among others, will outline ideas for making flexible screens, RFID tags and sensors out of inexpensive organic materials instead of rigid silicon semiconductors. Japan's Epson will show how it has created thin film transistors (TFTs), found in flat panels, with ink-jet printers.

• A number of universities and communications companies will outline progress in making multimode radios and producing radios on silicon, rather than with the more-expensive materials used today.

• In nanotechnology, Toshiba will demonstrate how silicon nanowires can be used for encryption purposes.

IBM, meanwhile, will provide details on a Power5 server chip that runs at speeds higher than 1.5GHz, and on a 2.5GHz PowerPC processor, a faster version of the chip currently found in machines from Apple Computer. Intel and Sun Microsystems will also discuss processor changes coming in the next few years.

Many of the conference papers--such as "CMOS Image Sensors Using Floating Diffusion Burled Photodiode" from Sony--sound like high-quality gobbledygook to the layperson. Still, the 51-year-old conference has been the launchpad for many computing breakthroughs. Papers that first described digital signal processors, or DSP (Bell Labs, 1980), RISC chips (UC Berkeley, Stanford, 1984), 100MHz processors (Intel, 1991) and 1GHz processors (Digital; Intel, 2000) were first presented at the conference.

Pass the chips
By contrast, the Intel Developer Forum, which takes place from Feb. 17 to 19, largely revolves around chips and other technology coming out of Intel and its allies and geared toward changing PCs, networking equipment, handhelds and servers.

Many announcements--such as the prototype notebooks and desktops that are unveiled at the conference--concern technology that starts to appear on shelves within a year or two.

Intel, however, also discusses inventions, such as sensor networks and carbon nanotubes, that might not appear for a decade. This year, for instance, Chief Technology Officer Pat Gelsinger will outline his vision for the "tera era" of computing, where computers with chips running in the terahertz range will search through terabytes of data for audio or video files. Search engines can find these now, but through text subtitles.

"Voice increases the complexity to an n squared," Gelsinger said of the future world of Internet searches.

Among the highlights, the company is expected to show off for the first time a Pentium-type chip that can handle 32-bit and 64-bit software, similar to the Opteron from rival Advanced Micro Devices, which will be holding briefings at hotels in the area at the same time.

CEO Craig Barrett, who is scheduled to deliver the keynote Tuesday, is also expected to discuss some of Intel's efforts in robotics, according to sources. Carnegie Mellon University professor Red Whittaker, who is managing the university's entrant for the DARPA Grand Challenge robotic-vehicle race, will make a presentation at the conference. Intel is a sponsor of the team.

Other highlights:

• Details on a new type of NOR flash memory. Intel historically has been a leader in this type of flash, which is used to store applications on cell phones, but experts say major advances in design will be necessary to continue to increase performance. Intel recently signed a deal with Nanosys to license memory technology.

• A presentation on how Intel will implement wireless USB and ultrawideband (UWB) into products. An organization to promote wireless USB will also be sketched out.

• Reference platforms for PDAs and phones will be shown along with information about forthcoming digital home products. Late last year, Intel created a division in its desktop products group to promote the use of Intel silicon in consumer electronics devices. Efforts to bridge the divide between PC makers and entertainment companies will also likely come up.

• Anand Chandrasekher, vice president of the mobile products group, will likely give an update on Dothan, a version of the Pentium M for notebooks, coming in the second quarter, as well as information on chipset and notebook design changes that will appear in 2004.

• Sean Maloney, general manager of the company's communications unit, will outline how Intel is moving its communications chips to the 90-nanometer process, which promises cheaper, faster chips. Maloney will also likely discuss WiMax, the long-range wireless technology.

• Intel engineers will discuss the previously announced liquid crystal on silicon processor for large screen projection TVs, 1GHz silicon modulators for optical equipment and high-definition audio for desktops and laptops.