Sensor Showcase From Japan With Love

November 23, 2013

YOKOHAMA, Japan — The further consolidations of Japanese semiconductor companies in recent years could simply mean that there were fewer big name Japanese chip vendors on the show floor at Embedded Technology 2013 (ET2013) here this week.

But, even with fewer brands on display, one of the most remarkable changes was the unprecedented proliferation of modules and development boards on display at Japanese semiconductor vendors’ booths.

Japanese chip suppliers are now squarely focused on pushing ready-to-use modules — complete with software, sensors, and connectivity chips. Many of the devices on such modules are not necessarily their own chips or solutions. Freed at last from the corporate not-invented-here syndrome, one Japanese engineer said, “We see our job in putting together solutions, not necessarily selling our own, individual chips.”

You might ask why it has taken the Japanese so long to wake up to a solution common to businesses everywhere else in the world. Late to the party or not, the reasons prompting these changes now are two-fold. Hard times, economically speaking, are one motivation. The other is the unstoppable, industry-wide trend for making every device smarter.

Most vendors at ET2013 were talking up M2M, sensors, energy harvesting ICs, battery-less wireless connectivity, HTML browsers, and big data — all thrown together in a package. Fortunately, the industry sees key building blocks coming together with immediate potential for practical use. These include: Echonet Lite (standards for linking home appliances made by different vendors); connectivity standards including Bluetooth Low Energy, ZigBee, Sub-GHz and PLC; a variety of sensors; sensor fusions; and energy harvesting.

Everyone in the Japanese industry is riding a somewhat inflated vision for smarter homes, smarter buildings, smarter automation, smarter grids, smarter cars, smarter healthcare, and smarter everything.

Oh, by the way, all this gets connected to the Internet (the legendary Internet of Things), thus generating big data, which in turn gets analyzed to make end-systems even smarter. Following is a slideshow of clever stuff spotted at ET2013 this week.

Practically all the awkward-looking wearable “wrist” devices (including those recently launched by Samsung, Sony, and others) remain “solutions to nothing,” as Richard Windsor at Radio Free Mobile put it recently. Casio’s G-Shock appears to be the only exception. It’s a watch that looks like a watch, sporting Bluetooth Low Energy connections to iPhones and Android phones. It’s been enjoying brisk sales in Japan.

While the market still remains completely unready for wearables, it’s always ready for a good watch.

Casio's G-Shock

Using Bluetooth Low Energy, Casio’s G-Shock sends an alert to a user upon the arrival of e-mail. The wristwatch also functions as a remote control for the user’s smartphone.

Lapis in, Nordic out in G-Shock
Lapis Semiconductor, now a part of Japan’s Rohm, has developed an extremely low power Bluetooth Low Energy device (which consumes less than 10 mA for sending or receiving data). Casio recently swapped a Bluetooth Low Energy chip by Nordic Semiconductor who had the initial design win with Lapis’ device for new G-Shock models.

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