MWC: the Hardware roundup

Bragi: hearables and the IoT

We sat down with CEO and Founder of Bragi Nikolaj Hviid, as an announcement about hearables had caught our eye in the run-up to MWC. We were suitably impressed by the devices; in-ear wireless headphones that house contextual computers, which Hviid is pushing as the next step in human-machine interfaces (HMI).

Explaining that a digital screen was a serial immersive interface, Hviid advocates for the benefits that the parallel discrete interface that the Dash devices provide – allowing users to listen to audio media and track their activity on the standalone ear buds that don’t require a smartphone to operate.

With activity tracking (steps, strokes, cadence, and heartbeat) and a microphone to provide speaking capabilities when the Dash are paired with a smartphone via the Bragi application, the waterproof buds were a surprisingly good fit – not usually the case for this writer.

The passive noise cancellation and audio transparency were impressive, allowing a user to hear somebody speaking even if there was music playing. Positional sound also allows for a pretty immersive experience, and Hviid said that this moving soundscape was particularly important for mixed-reality applications.

Hviid said that it would be hard to market the device as an ‘audible contextual computer,’ and so the ‘Listen, Track, Communicate’ tagline came to the fore. Linked by Bluetooth, the Dash is based on an ARM M4 processor, running a real-time operating system (RTOS) that can fit inside a 600KB memory footprint.

The Bragi OS has received interest from smartphone vendors looking to white-label the technology as part of their own hardware offerings. The German company, which allocates about 75% of its 180 staff on R&D, will always make reference hardware designs, but Hviid said that the next step was moving the voice-based interactions from the current level-three options to the fourth-generation – to provide a truly random access interface that doesn’t rely on hierarchies for searches and comprehension.

For those wondering about the name, Hviid told us of the Norse god Bragi, who would serenade the entrants to Valhalla with poetry and music – a suitably audible moniker for the impressive technology.

Thinfilm: booze and new 5bn-scale factory acquisition

At Pepcom’s expo event, we met Thinfilm’s Bill Cummings, who was demoing Thinfilm’s range of NFC-enabled tags – which are being used by retailers looking to add a digital presence to their physical goods, typically via smartphone apps.

The latest customer for the tiny chips is Norwegian wholesaler Arcus, which is using the tags in its Linie brand of Aquavit. Cummings showed us a sheet of the printed chips, measuring around 12-inches square, which housed around 13,000 of the chips – which can be incorporated into packaging, and powered by the NFC reader in a smartphone.

This mechanism allows a retailer to create customer engagement experiences that can help drive renewed sales, as well as in brand protection endeavors to prevent counterfeiting.

With a new printing facility in Silicon Valley, formerly a Qualcomm plant, Thinfilm has an annual capacity of around 5bn chips, mass produced on foil substrates. Housing a URL, which can be changed through the life of the product to provide different application experiences, we are very optimistic about the potential of products like this in the digitization of supply chains and retail.

Symantec Norton: a smart home IoT firewall in a fancy WiFi gateway

Also at Pepcom was Symantec, which was showing off the new Norton Core home router – a rather fetching WiFi gateway that is offering the antivirus and security features of Norton to all the devices in a smart home. Priced at $199 for the first year, with a $10 monthly subscription once the first year’s free service expires, Symantec is stepping into a market that is heating up.

At MWC, we also saw Dojo Labs (see below), which has developed a similar proposition, and companies like F-Secure are also using in-home devices to provide a network presence for security.

As for the sales pitch, Norton says the Core provides excellent WiFi delivery performance, as well as antivirus coverage for 20 devices (PCs, smartphones, tablets, laptops) – meaning that the monthly fee is a pretty good deal if you’re already in the habit of paying for your antivirus protection.

But the main draw is the smart home functions, with a locked-down design that should help the system from being hacked, as well as the removal of the typical web-browser interaction that is often exploited by attackers. Instead, users require a smartphone application to control the Core – which Symantec believes is much more secure.

The app also provides a security rating for users, as a means of gamifying the process, but the special sauce is Norton’s anomaly detection and blocking, which helps isolate dangerous IP traffic within the home, and prevent threats from gaining access from outside the home – using deep packet inspection (DPI) and machine-learning techniques to spot potential threats.

ON Semiconductor: deep-sleep chips and MARS

ON Semi were holed up in the top of one of the nearby hotels, showing off a range of their IoT-focused designs. We were shown round by David Somo, SVP Corporate Strategy and Marketing, taking a look at everything from wearables to pig-implantable temperature sensors.

At MWC, the company announced that it was sampling the lowest-power Bluetooth 5 SoC, aimed at wearables and IoT devices, called the RSL10, as well as unveiling a new modular automotive imaging platform, called the Modular Automotive Reference System (MARS) aimed at developers looking to quickly test different combinations of lenses and silicon.

In the RSL10 demo, the SoC was moving from a deep-sleep mode that used 20nA, before waking up to communicate at 200nA. The low power usage and quick wake time means that the chip can provide long battery-lives for devices using the silicon, with around 6-months of operation on a coin-cell battery.

Next up were a couple of developer kits, as well as our learning about the development of a tri-mode wireless charger that would support the Qi, Rezence, and PMA standards. Also on show was a range of charging adapters that used a Gallium Nitrate design to significantly shrink the size required to supply power to smartphones and laptops.

As for strategy, Somo said that ON Semi had around 64,000 products total, with automotive being its largest sector. IoT-specific business in its industrial, wireless, and consumer segments currently accounts for around 20% of business, and was growing quickly. With recent acquisitions focused on improving the company’s sensing capabilities, Somo noted that ON Semi was likely to carry out more IoT acquisitions.

Italtel: cities and grids, as SI hunts lucrative verticals

Luca Ferraris, Head of Strategy, Innovation and Communication at Italtel told us that the venerable Italian networking specialist was still investing heavily in the IoT, since we last met the company at MWC. Saying that it was now a more fully-featured systems integrator (SI), the company is looking to expand its presence in smart city and smart grid projects and compete against the telco providers.

Italy, the eighth-largest economy in the world by GDP, represents a whole lot of IoT opportunities for Italtel, which is aiming to provide vertical solutions to businesses looking at deployments that encompass the end-devices and the cloud applications. With Enel as a major customer, the company had an EV charging demo on display at MWC, which looked pretty busy the few times we zipped past it during the show.

Ferraris noted that Enel was considering building LoRa networks, as part of its smart grid endeavors, and Italtel is involved with IoT projects ranging from rail communication networks, bridge infrastructure monitoring, smart street lighting, milling, robotic manufacturing, and telehealth. Italtel also provides NATO with mobile data centers for war games.

As for trends, Ferraris believes that utilities are the most interested in the IoT, using metering and data to help reduce opex and grid usage. As utility networks get increasingly complex, Ferraris sees them moving towards a non-SIM-based option like LoRa as a preference for connecting grid infrastructure.

NXP: IoT is transversal tech, no we can’t talk about the $47bn elephant

Next up was NXP Semiconductors, which is still waiting on regulatory approval for Qualcomm’s proposed $47bn takeover. Regardless of the looming merger, NXP was showing off a plethora of silicon at MWC, including its Blue Box modular automotive system.

Denis Cabrol, Director of Marketing and Systems, said that customers typically have massive gaps in their expertise, which nicely positions NXP as a provider of complex solutions, rather than just a provider of individual silicon components. As Cabrol put it, NXP is providing a collection of building blocks to create an IoT application.

Pointing to industrial lighting as a prime example, Cabrol said that this approach can reduce the time to market from 18-24 months to 6-9 months. He added that companies realize they can’t provide or hire the necessary expertise, and so NXP’s range of guaranteed recipes (of processors and RF silicon) becomes very appealing, especially with its pre-tested and pre-integrated configurations that can further increase this speed.

As a sales tool, this approach helps NXP moves up the food chain, from single-component enquiries to conversations with R&D leads. AT MWC, NXP announced that it had supplied five leading automotive OEMs with NFC components, including its NCx3320, as well as unveiling a new embedded Secure Element (SE) called the PN80T. NXP says the latter is the first 40nm SE, and is pitching it at smartphones, wearables, and IoT devices.

CEVA: NB-IoT chip, huge opportunity for wireless hospital tags

CEVA’s booth was full of rather cool demos, but didn’t feature the newly announced NB-IoT and Cat-M1 chip design that it announced in conjunction with Astri. The move takes it into competition with the likes of Sequans, Altair, and Qualcomm.

Akin to ARM, CEVA designs processors and then licenses them to customers – and ARM has also moved into the LTE-M market thanks to its recent acquisition of Mistbase and NextG-Com. CEVA’s expertise in Bluetooth was on show, with a Bluetooth 5 smart home gateway on show, and CEVA was also showing off its LTE and audio processing tech powering the new Xiaomi Pinecone SoC.

Director of Strategic Marketing, Moshe Sheier, said that the Astri relationship had started around a year ago, and said that the development process was not straightforward. He said that the new Dragonfly NB1 chip used a 55nm architecture, which initially struck us as being somewhat large for a low-power IoT chip.

Sheier explained that 55nm was very common in IoT silicon, thanks to it being cheap and suitably low-power, adding that it was unlikely that IoT chips would get below 40nm any time soon. Sheier showed us around the CEVA demos, which included a range of rather impressive object and facial recognition chips and software.

A device that caught our eye was a WiFi-enabled medical patch, designed to replace the plethora of wires that connect patients to hospital machines. CEVA thinks this is a 5bn-unit market if hospitals move to wireless connections, and the HMicro WiPoint is a good example of an emerging IoT market.

CEVA supplies its RivieraWaves WiFi IP, with HMicro adding its Ultra WideBand (UWB) and Medical Band (MB) radios to the units – in order to ensure compliance with hospital RF regulations. Sheier agreed with our point that devices such as this make trying to catalog the number of potential IoT devices shipped per year a little redundant, as things like medical monitors or RFID pallet-tags can skew the figures enormously – depending on your definition of an IoT device.

Rambus: pure-software security isn’t the answer, CryptoManager platform is

Hardcore technologist Rambus was also at MWC, where we sat down with Asaf Ashkenazi, Senior Director of IoT Security Products, and Peter Hodgins, Solutions Marketing Manager, to take a look at a set of security systems designed for IoT devices – Rambus’ CryptoManager Security Platform.

Rambus is operating on the basis that nothing beats a hardware root of trust in a device, and that a pure-software approach is not enough. Using a Rambus security chip, Rambus can offer an online service that manages automatic provisioning and identity, as well as issuing the required security certificate and pushing key updates to the devices.

Using a hidden private key to generate derived keys, and using mathematical processes to pair this derived keys between the cloud and the device, Rambus is able to update the device’s key on a schedule, helping make sure that an attack on the cloud infrastructure would only have a window of opportunity to compromise the end-devices. T

he system also allows for new master keys, if such a cloud attack was able to reach such a (normally) disastrous peak. When a device comes online, it is directed to a URL inside Rambus SaaS, which carries out the provisioning and certificate issuance. The process that the URL points to can be adapted over time, to ensure that keys are updated.

Ashkenazi is confident that to crack a single Rambus chip would require an investment of millions of dollars, and that is an expense that would have to be replicated to attack each single chip, as cracking one wouldn’t give you access to the others.

He added that Qualcomm had been a customer for some three years, and was using it in its MDM9206/7 LTE-M chips, and that LG Semi was also using the system. We were told that there were ongoing discussions with 3 more potential customers, including a major IoT chip company.

Ashkenazi also told us that, in his personal opinion, IoT security could move in a similar way to air pollution, where a government sets laws to help mitigate the impact of businesses on consumers and the environment. Such regulations would force companies to look at security as a cost, and work the price of compliance into their business models.

Cavium: MontaVista Linux and ARM gateways

Next up was Cavium, a fabless semiconductor specialist with a hankering for ARM and MIPS processors. Iisko Lappalainen from Cavium’s subsidiary MontaVista showed us the CN80XX IoT Gateway, using a Linux distribution developed by MontaVista that aims to provide the carrier-grade reliability and life-expectancy needed for IoT devices in the field.

While Cavium and MontaVista can’t name many customers due to the NDA’s that are commonplace among security deals, Ericsson and BAE are public at least. With demos of temper proof gateways, and edge-computing applications running in KVM or Docker containers, the ARM v8 gateway is being targeted at networking applications.

Also on show was an LTE gateway that Cavium had designed for the Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP), which Cavium has contributed its LTE silicon to – open-sourcing the tech in the process. Currently supporting up to the Release 9 specs, the gateway is on target to support the new LTE-M standards from Release 13 by the end of the year.

We were told, by Kin-Yip Liu, Senior Director Solutions Architecture and Segment Marketing, that all three South Korean MNOs had deployed the TIP gateways, which are powered by Cavium’s Octeon Fusion-M processor. Mostly dealing in hardware, with some software offerings, Cavium is embracing NFV and network-edge processing – especially as it helps it pitch itself as a means of avoiding vendor lock-in.

Bullguard’s Dojo: smart home security and potential white-labels

We started day three by visiting BullGuard’s Dojo Labs, a recent acquisition, and met Dojo Labs’ co-founder and CEO Yossi Atias – who talked us through Dojo’s Pebble home security device. A two-part device, the base-unit plugs into the home’s WiFi gateway and lets Dojo run its security protocols and computation, with the Pebble itself acting as a notification device that can be placed in a visible area of the home

Glowing red or orange means that the Pebble has detected a problem in the home network, or spotted a pattern that isn’t normal – based on its behavioral analytics. The Ethernet link into the gateway allows the Pebble to detect and monitor non-IP traffic (things like lightbulbs or locks) via the hubs that these devices typically use to connect to the cloud services that support them.

Atias showed us around the Dojo smartphone application, which sorts devices into categories and displays the code-red (malicious behavior that requires user response) and code-orange (malicious behavior, with an automated response) alerts. With a chatbot-type interface, Dojo is aiming to provide assurance to users without ever having to dive into the complexities of configuring routers or running their own protection.

The demonstration that Atias walked us through saw Atias try to access a ‘home’ webcam that was setup in Dojo’s Israeli HQ, with the Pebble flashing red and pushing a notification to his smartphone – to verify if the attempt was legitimate or malicious. A piece of software written to attack a set of Philips Hue bulbs achieved the same result.

Priced at $199, with a $10 monthly fee that is free for the first year, the service is being aimed squarely at consumers. Atias did say that Dojo has had conversations with ISPs who would offer the Pebble as an additional service, which could see the Pebble white-labelled.

ARM: Softbanks says go faster, possibly buy more things

We sat down with ARM’s Ian Ferguson, VP Corporate Marketing and Strategic Alliances, for a catch-up at MWC – in the wake of Softbank’s $32bn acquisition of the British chip designer. We asked what had changed internally at ARM, and Ferguson said that Softbank was asking ARM to ramp up progress – something that ARM was always wary of when it was concerned with when posting its quarterly results. Ferguson said that the strategy hadn’t changed, it had just accelerated.

To this end, ARM recently acquired Mistbase and NextG-Com to get ahead in NB-IoT. We thought this was something of a first for the company, moving into wireless, but Ferguson pointed out that ARM acquired Sunrise back in 2015 to give it a Bluetooth and ZigBee leg-up in the design market.

Pointing to the machine-vision assets of Apical that ARM bought, Ferguson said that he wouldn’t rule out more acquisitions. He noted that ARM was very aware that it risked upsetting partners if it begins to encroach on their turf, and that there are obvious places where it doesn’t make strategic sense for ARM to try and enter.

We also asked about ARM’s role in servers, and whether it might challenge Intel. Ferguson said that the Softbank acquisition had helped this area, and that the ecosystem is progressing. He said that Canonical and ARM were funding an OpenStack distribution that is due to be released this year, noting that the project isn’t something that ARM would have done prior to Softbank.

Our conversation turned to GPUs and ASICs as data center computational tools, largely because Intel’s growth curves seem to have been damaged by their sudden popularity in AI and machine-learning applications. Ferguson noted that ASICs could prove popular in network-edge applications for companies looking to avoid silicon vendor lock-in, but pointed out that ASICs were once quite popular in base stations and had receded.

As for semiconductor consolidation, Ferguson said it would be interesting to see how many chip specialists begin moving into software, on the back of the IoT. The software offerings might prove a driver for the next wave of semiconductor consolidation, as a way of avoiding longer-term commoditization.

Taoglas: LPWAN antennae are pretty simple, GPS on the other hand …

On day-four, we visited Irish antenna specialist Taoglas, to take a look at its IoT offerings – which include updated designs for LPWAN protocols. As Projects Manager David Connolly put it, the LPWAN designs aren’t much of a challenge, as their requirements are very similar to Taoglas’ bread-and-butter 2G and 3G antennae.

Connolly showed us Taoglas’ Adaptrix modular antenna design, which was really rather impressive. Built to be combined into modular MIMO arrays, the system can be scaled to match the required application, with Connolly noting that an upper-limit of 128 units was possible.

Headquartered in Ireland, with around 200 staff in offices in Munich and Taiwan too, Taoglas has a presence in around 80% of automotive OEMs in the EU and US – with many using its GPS offerings to power location features in vehicles.

It was at this point that we fell down a magnificent rabbit-hole, thanks to Taoglas’ VP of Engineering, Chris Anderson, who explained the intricacies of L1, L2, and L5 GPS tech to us, and the ways in which antennae are designed to make use of them.

Touching on ionospheric interference, encryption, and phase-error compensation, Anderson explained that the demand for the high-accuracy provided by L2 and L5 will help crush the price of those complex GPS modules. Another point made by Anderson was that the antenna cost of NB-IoT would be driven down if the community chooses to focus on one or two LTE bands. We could have talked for a good few hours more.

Vkansee: optical fingerprint sensing for three-factor IoT authentication

Our last stop at MWC was Vkansee, before we were unceremoniously herded out of the show. We spoke to Jason Chaikin, the company’s president, who walked us through a very cool fingerprint scanner that Vkansee is positioning as the next phase in IoT security.

Vkansee has developed a miniaturized optical fingerprint scanner, which provides much higher levels of accuracy than similarly sized capacitive alternatives. This makes spoofing a fingerprint much harder, and Vkansee’s design can also spot the materials used to create fake fingerprints.

At 1.5mm thick, the unit can provide a 2,000dpi reading, whereas capacitive reader accuracies are usually more like 500dpi. This provides Vkansee with the third-level details that make spoofing much harder to do.

The security pitch for the IoT is that two-factor authentication (a password plus a variable secret) isn’t enough, and that adding a biometric like a user’s fingerprint would greatly improve overall system security. Consequently, you need a low-power reader that is resilient to spoofing, and Vkansee is hoping to be that technology in IoT devices and smartphones.

As smartphones look set to be central devices in the consumer IoT, as well as enterprise projects, it makes sense to use the handset as a tool to authenticate users and their associated devices. Using something like a fingerprint reader in three-factor authentication would enable highly secure operations. But the IoT industry is still being wracked by security vulnerabilities, and Vkansee can see a role for it to play here.