Trend watch: MCU-based user interfaces take shape as key differentiator in cloud connected devices

1As size and power considerations continue to rule the day in the microcontroller realm, many current MCU trends revolve around the user interface as a key product differentiator, as explained to our editors by Mitchell Little of Microchip Technology Inc. in the following interview. These incarnations include touch buttons/sliders, touch pads for automotive applications, and 3D gesturing controllers, among others.

ECD: What new microcontroller technologies are available to meet the growing demand for cloud connected embedded devices?

LITTLE: The most popular technology supporting the cloud connected devices is certainly Wi-Fi, which is being added to embedded applications. Fully certified, surface-mount Wi-Fi modules allow designers to quickly and seamlessly add Internet connectivity to their applications. Such modules’ small form factor and ultra-low power make them suited to mobile wireless applications such as asset monitoring, sensors, and portable battery-operated devices, for example. By integrating certified modules into an embedded application, customers can be sure of FCC/CE/ETSI/IC certification. Wi-Fi modules with on-board TCP-IP stacks are also available so no external drivers are required. Such modules might feature an ASCII command interface and over air firmware upgrade capability for easy interface to a standard MCU via UART or SPI. For developers who want more flexibility to modify the TCP/IP stack, services, and source code, Wi-Fi radio transceiver modules work with TCP/IP stacks and can be customized for various protocol layers.

ECD: As you look ahead for the next few years, what trends do you see in the embedded design area and how will they affect your product development plans?

LITTLE: During the past few years, the evolution in user interface technology was very rapid from touch keys to touchless interface driven by the consumer market. But it also happened in every type of application and market as the user interface is now a key product differentiator. We were among the first to introduce a microcontroller-based solution for capacitive touch buttons. It is based on standard MCUs, from 8 bits to 32 bits, which provide highly integrated building blocks for the implementation of touch systems. We open up our algorithms and techniques to engineers, so that they can design with our touch implementation on our microcontrollers. From a system level, we are seeing touch buttons/sliders integrated with application in higher-end microcontrollers in addition to the low-cost dedicated touch controllers. The same capacitive solutions can also be used in more than just user interfaces; they can also measure water level or be used for pressure sensing, for instance.

In addition, low-cost and low-power touch pad request are a rapidly growing trend, outside the PC market, for user interface for all kinds of end equipment such as remote controls and automotive. 3D gesturing controllers, such as the one we just introduced, are enabling the next dimension in intuitive, non-contact user interfaces for a broad range of end products.

ECD: With ubiquitous connectivity dominating embedded designs, what security precautions are available to prevent unauthorized access?

LITTLE: Transactions such as those done with smartcards require a very high level of encryption to protect data that is being transferred. Developers also need to consider items such as:

  • Privacy (AES-128), that is, I sent a message but I do not wish for anyone to see it, other than the person to whom I sent it.
  • Authenticity (HMAC), that is, I sent a message to someone but how do they know it is from me?
  • Integrity (SHA-2), that is, I sent a message to someone but how do we know if the data is being tampered with?

Free software libraries are available also, offering the ability to implement flexible security solutions on many microcontrollers. USB-based card reader solutions are also on the market, all capable of providing a high level of security.

ECD: Software development is a huge portion of each new embedded development project. What development tools and libraries do you offer developers?

LITTLE: When evaluating any development tool infrastructure, engineers should focus on four areas. First, the IDE, or Integrated Development Environment, must be easy to use, highly modular, and support a wide range of MCU price and performance points. Second, the C compilers should be as highly optimized as possible for the target architectures to ensure the smallest code footprint. Third, developers should look for a wide range of available development hardware, from simple prototyping boards to highly functional test-and-measurement kits. Lastly, the availability of supporting documentation, code examples, and software libraries is highly important in helping speed time to market.

Our MPLAB X IDE addresses the increasingly complex development cycles our customers find themselves in. It enables a unified development environment that supports all of our silicon products. Our line of MPLAB XC compilers is highly optimized for PIC MCU architectures, enabling our customers to be as efficient as possible with on-chip resources. We offer hundreds of development hardware tools, which give customers the option of selecting the appropriate tool for their development task. Our tool offering is designed to take advantage of the consistent use of similar peripherals across the product line. This allows for maximum reuse of existing code base in future projects.

ECD: Does your company offer any educational events or online classes to help embedded designers get started with microcontroller-centric projects?

LITTLE: Solving technical problems and getting customers’ products to market quickly are vitally important, and because training needs are constantly changing, we offer several types of training based on what customers need. We offer face-to-face training at our Regional Training Centers (RTCs) and at customer facilities. Live training over the Web is also available for many of our topics, and we offer hundreds of short training sessions through the Webinar site.

Additionally, now in its 17th year, Microchip’s MASTERs Conference technical training conference provides face-to-face, engineer-to-engineer training in seven countries. While the specific class list in each location varies, core classes taught in most locations include topics such as motor control, USB, TCP/IP, power supply design, touch sensing, and RTOS. Both lecture and hands-on lab classes are offered, and classes are taught by application engineers. Classes are available for engineers across any range of experience.

In summary, with a worldwide network of Regional Training Centers, certified third-party trainers, and authorized distributors, we strive to make it easy for developers to enhance technical skills with live instruction. These courses are taught by our staff or by Microchip Certified Technical Training Engineers live at various sites throughout the world, and usually in the local language. In addition to having a Technical Training Engineer on location teaching the course, all required tools and materials are provided for use during the class.

Also, our library of 100+ On-Demand Web Seminar presentations helps developers get the information they need, when they need it. Available in several formats (streaming video, PDF downloads, and so on), most of these presentations take only 20 minutes.

Mitchell Little has served as Microchip’s Vice President, Worldwide Sales and Applications, since July 2000. Prior to that, he served as Vice President, Americas Sales; Vice President, Standard Microcontroller and ASSP Division; and Vice President, Memory Products and ASSP Division. Mitchell holds a BSET from the United Electronics Institute.

Microchip Technology Inc.

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