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Google's Project Ara could sidestep wearable devices

30 Apr 2014  | Julien Happich

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Since November last year, Toshiba has been working with Google to develop new IP for the modular smartphone's endoskeleton. This includes a switch IC to be part of the endoskeleton, which would be able to redirect data from any module plugged onto the endoskeleton to any other, and two bridge ASICs which would ensure the conversion from legacy and current data formats of the modular applications to the MIPI UniPro unified interface.

Kazi unveiled the future AP Bridge (application processor), combining CSI/DSI interfaces, a Host Bust Interface, I2C, I2S, and GPIOs on one side for modules featuring an application processor, a display, a camera, a microphone or a speaker, a secondary display, with a UniPro layer on the other side.

The GP Bridge, a general purpose bridge IC is aimed at modules such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Modems, GPS, memory cards, SIMs. It combines HSIC (host) and SDIO (master) ports with UART, I2C, I2S, EPM and GPIOs on one side and the Unipro layer on the other side.

The company expects its first engineering samples by Q4 of 2014, with commercial samples ready early next year for module developers. The idea is to take the complexity of UniPro out of the developers' hand, so they can focus on new applications with the interfaces they are comfortable with.

Toshiba will also push its own reference modules into the market, planning a computational array camera reference module (packing two 5Mpx cameras and a pre-processor chip) in a one by two 20mm x 40mm unit, less than 5mm high. The video module could be used to perform all sorts of augmented reality type of applications such as depth mapping, gesture operation, object extraction, refocus.

Other reference modules the Japanese company is working on include a close proximity wireless reference design using 560Mps-capable Transfer Jet technology (at up to 3cm), and an activity meter reference module.

The activity meter module is something that would exemplify the modular cannibalisation of wearables by Project Ara. Kazi described a one-by-one module packed with an ARM Cortex-M4F processor, Bluetooth Low Energy and multiple axis motion sensors. Of course, the unit would fit into the modular smartphone backplane as an add-on, but alternatively, it could also be clipped to a wristband, becoming a wearable peripheral again.

Then, the same cost and optimisation race could happen among module providers as it has been the case for the complete smartphones, with companies competing at module level. This could bring more tier pricing models, ranging from cheap near-empty modules (including customised cosmetic ones, coloured carcasses, mini-aquariums, squishy foam pads etc.), to very densely packed units for more processing power, more radio combinations, etc.


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