Before moving back to Pakistan, I worked as a Product Manager at Cypress Semiconductor Inc. One of my roles was to work on highlighting the low power features of the company’s latest PSoC3/5 microcontroller platform. Cypress is a business-to-business corporation, meaning that they didn’t sell directly to consumers. Dell, or HP, and Apple are examples of consumer electronics companies; ours was pretty much a ‘semiconductor’ corporation.
Their latest device is a very powerful microcontroller- one that is forging new grounds in the world of power conservation. Now, small devices like microcontrollers only consume current at most, in the range of milliamps (mA) during regular operation. When they go into ‘low power’ wait states (i.e. when they’re not being used, such as when your Logitech mouse goes to a dimmer, low power state when you’re not moving it around), they reduce power consumption by large amounts- thereby extending battery life. Even though the consumption is small compared to what you’re used to from your high school electricity days- the difference between an average current in mA to uA can mean days’ more lifetime in terms of battery life. Power consumption is one of the cornerstones of thoughtful and successful embedded electronic design.
Microcontrollers are not the easiest things to program- often requiring familiarity with a particular coding language, or proprietary software that allows users to tell it what to do, and when to do it; all of this exists as ‘code’ that is particular to the function that microcontroller is playing for an application- commonly known as firmware.
The trouble, from a technical marketing perspective, becomes demonstrating the intricate features-the deep down value-adds- to customers like consumer electronics manufacturers. I tend to gravitate towards socializing with people more than electronics. This further means that the less complicated the tools I have to use- the more likely I am to use them.
Cypress gave me the task of demonstrating the very powerful albeit complicated features of the chip’s power management system, in the best manner possible. For me, the best manner possible is always the simplest manner possible, with minimal loss of content/ product information. Working with a team of very capable layout, application and analog engineers, we came up with a standalone demonstration board that worked ‘right out of the box’. The objective was to remove the need for engineers at companies we went to see, to install software, then learn to use the system, before actually being able to see how versatile and power efficient this new device was. This design we came up is truly standalone, with a custom-designed LCD to let users know what’s actually going on within the chip.When dealing with embedded electronics, no monitors or outward GUIs are involved, which previously made the task of showing a customer what was actually going on inside rather difficult without plugging it to a computer, and using particular software. The pictures here are pre-firmware, and pre-chip. Plus, at that time, I wouldn’t have been allowed to even show this to anyone. None of this would have been possible with my amazing colleagues and managers- Ata Khan, George Saul, Palani Subbiah, Greg Verge, Dennis Seguine, Sherif Hanna and Greg Reynolds and his whole team. It’s pretty cool taking something from a sketch to a real live product. Even cooler is working with people to get through the bugs, and meeting specs. I know it sounds nerdy- but it’s just another taste of the ‘can-do’ engineering spirit.
In this case, you can choose what low-power mode to put the device in, and vary the components that are activated to realistically simulate how the device would perform in real circumstances. All of this was done with two devices- one as a monitor, and one as the ‘device under test’. Since a lot of the analog electronics to measure such performance can become complicated, this board also highlighted how the chip we were selling was able to handle all the difficult precise, analog measurements as well as running the LCD segments we designed. So our design manages to highlight the main value drivers the device (the microcontroller) offers; the low power operation, the high precision analog subsystem (precise, real-time current, voltage and oscillator frequency measurement), capacitive sensing (board’s buttons) and the built-in LCD (custom and generic LCDs on the board) drive capability- all without writing a line of code and zero installation. You don’t even need a computer to use this evaluation board.
To boot, since this was meant to be a sales tool, I’d dictated that the board had to fit within a standard sized DVD case. sure, this sounds boring, but from an interaction point of view- I thought it was heavy engineering behind the scenes, to make life super-easy for the end user.
And that, my friends, is…the engineering spirit as I know it.