Posts Tagged ‘top-story’

Two Are Better Than One: Dual Technology Architectures Leverage Flexibility to Facilitate Exciting Casino Games

Monday, August 20th, 2018

What it takes to achieve a cohesive, certified and highly reliable gaming platform

Creative casino gaming developers both large and small are continually looking for advanced technologies that will enable them to keep their competitive edge. OEMs understand the value technology adds in delivering immersive and entertaining experiences that provide the incentive players demand to keep them playing longer and more frequently.

For the most part, this is easier said than done. Video-rich, interactive games rely on the fastest multicore processors, extensive I/O, and screaming graphics performance in highly dense enclosures where proven reliability matters. Getting all this technology to work together isn’t always cost-effective or easily integrated to meet an OEM’s time-to-market goals. Another hurdle is that no developer wants to be slowed-down from getting to market quickly by continual regional certifications and recertifications if any modification to the system takes place. So, what is the best approach that offers long-term technology scalability? Recently some developers have discovered that gaming logic box platforms provide a building block solution. The developers get the latest features and capabilities for easily accommodating multiple game designs and future upgrades. However, there is still room for improvement in helping OEMs streamline the development process.

Achieving a cohesive, certified and highly reliable gaming platform requires developers to significantly change the technology architecture they integrate. The change is in adopting new dual architecture high-performance gaming logic computing platforms. With this alternative approach, OEMs get the scalability and flexibility to meet current and next-generation requirements head on. That means more exciting casino games.

Gaming Machine Design Overview
Gaming machine designs are typically divided into two major functional areas: The media section has the hardware and software used to run the game, while the I/O portion  connects the hardware peripherals and includes the security features required to pass GLI and BMM. A development challenge for OEMs is to seek out a gaming logic platform that comes closest to meeting their specific design, processor and graphics performance, and I/O needs.

Figure 1: The flexibility to choose media board and GPU variations helps developers easily accommodate specific design requirements for either existing game content or new high-performance, interactive content. Selecting an Intel 10-year extended life processor requires the I/O board to be certified just once.

The I/O part of the design is an important consideration, as it has a bearing on time-to-market and on the direction future upgrades or additional games development will take. That is because the I/O board needs to be certified by the GLI and BMM gaming laboratories.

There seems to be no lack of creativity when it comes to developing casino games. The intense graphics and interactive nature of today’s games calls for ever-increasing design complexity. In turn, their gaming hardware choices must deliver the performance, connectivity, and features that simultaneously support broad I/O needs while sufficiently handling advanced gaming software architectures. This makes size and power a real concern, so the most optimal hardware platforms need to support multiple independent display outputs simultaneously from a single gaming controller.

A dual architecture gaming logic box solution (Figure 1) can be the facilitating foundation that stimulates innovative games without being tied to a static feature set.

This level of complexity and desired performance calls for multicore processors that integrate high-speed graphics cores. Taking games to new levels of entertainment are where the latest quad-core processing architectures are true multimedia enablers, capable of driving multiple full HD or 4K screens with very low latency in terms of frames-per-second performance during video decode. High resolution graphics, supported with HD multimedia processing and simultaneous encode/ decode video capabilities, as well as 3D acceleration, offer the most ideal gaming logic box features for multi-screen games. Hardware platforms for the gaming market need to be optimized to accommodate the full feature set of gaming I/O, pin outs, and removable storage including PCI Express (PCIe), high-speed Ethernet, RS-232 and USB ports, and SATA SSDs. These types of building block solutions essentially multiply the I/O options developers can access for everything from speakers and lights to card readers, printers, bill readers, and player tracking applications.

Architectural Shift Rationale
An architectural shift that took place several years ago giving gaming developers considerable design efficiencies is in the use of a common hardware platform that offers scalability, upgradeability, and backward compatibility. Innovation can take priority when a designer is working with a proven, open-architecture platform that can be leveraged across an OEM’s entire portfolio. The flexibility to scale application features per a given game’s specifications becomes much easier when hardware platforms can offer a number of multicore processor options with integrated high-speed graphics cores and a range of power profiles that meet expanded functionality in smaller form factors.

Today’s dual-architecture gaming logic box solutions make an even greater argument for a gaming hardware shift. Separate media and I/O architectures designed to work together provide a breakthrough platform for continued gaming innovation, scalability, and application flexibility. Of primary importance is that this approach solves a major time-to-market issue for OEMs. Any change at all to the I/O section of the game system requires all new regional certifications. By separating all the I/O functions onto their own dedicated board and keeping that portion of the system the same, developers will only be required to certify the system once. The certification process can be cumbersome as even slight gaming hardware alterations have typically required recertification of every part of the game’s design all over again. A boon for developers is that new gaming designs can now be streamlined. Taking a dual-architecture gaming box approach eliminates this costly and time-consuming requirement. Developers today have more freedom to change or upgrade the media platform without the need to recertify each and every machine design.

For example, with the media and I/O separate, OEMs can select from any of the highest performing AMD or Intel processor architectures for the media board. That means the developer can concentrate on optimizing the game’s software performance without worrying about the I/O needed. In addition, a two-architecture hardware solution that offers a PCIe slot also makes it easier to integrate a variety of higher performance graphics add-in cards such as those from NVIDIA or AMD. This results in faster development of both the media and peripheral connection areas of the game, allowing designers to meet both high-performance and low-power goals, and lets the OEM be in full control of selecting the exact combination of technologies to fit a particular game’s specs.

This new architectural approach can also help improve security with the inclusion of secure boot capabilities on the I/O board. Secure boot functionality ensures that only trusted game software is operating by preventing malicious software applications and “unauthorized” operating systems from loading during the system start-up process. By including this extra level of security, secure boot also aids in the ability to meet the security requirements needed to pass GLI and BMM.

Figure 2:  The security feature checks the entire system to see if anything has changed, and if any change is detected in either the hardware or the software, it will not boot.

Gaming Features that Make Sense
Dual architecture platforms also need to offer state-of-the-art features that meet the advanced technology required for increasingly entertaining casino games. Processor performance with built-in graphics top the list of feature requirements for the media board. A prime example is illustrated in gaming logic box solutions based on the AMD R-Series quad-core SoC that integrates AMD Radeon™ graphics and an I/O controller. Its programmable cores make high-speed parallel processing possible, offering a performance-rich environment that capably supports complex casino gaming systems. Delivering amazing HD multimedia/video graphics with true 4K decode and encode, the AMD R-Series also presents a highly power efficient compact form factor solution. Plus, its Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) technology lets designers balance workloads between the CPU and GPU to optimize processing performance, reduce latencies, and maximize access to cache memory. The bottom-line is design complexity can be simplified through a reduction in board layers and power supply needs.

A key benefit in separating the media and I/O portions in gaming hardware solutions is that developers get increased CPU options that can help them take multiple streaming of 4K content, 360-degree videos, and virtual and augmented reality game creativity to the next level. Illustrated with the EFCO EGL50X5 gaming logic box, there is a broad range of processor choices that include Intel® Skylake and Intel® Kaby Lake CPUs as well as the  AMD R-Series options and the latest AMD Ryzen™ V1000. All four available CPU choices all can use the same fixed I/O board.

Figure 3:  EFCO’s latest EGL50X5 gaming logic box offers unprecedented versatility for the development of casino games from its dual architecture design. As one of its media board options, OEMs can select the AMD Embedded R-Series SOC for designs that need the highest performing graphics and HD multimedia processing. Its I/O board is fully GLI/BMM-compliant and supports the complete feature set of gaming I/O and pin out requirements, which satisfy current and future I/O application needs.

Features on the I/O board are equally important where the CPU selected can make a difference. Logic box solutions that, for instance, offer the Intel® Atom™ E3800 processor family as an option provide energy-efficient high performance. The feature benefits include exceptional I/O connectivity, an integrated memory controller, plus virtualization, error correcting code (ECC), and built-in security capabilities that are in addition to the approving gaming standards houses’ security requirements.

On the media board broad port interface support is a given, too. Considerations for the media portion of next-generation casino games must accommodate display and audio output, as well as necessary gaming interfaces that include PCI Express and high-speed Ethernet.

Double the Flexibility
Demonstrating the value of using a dual-architecture gaming logic box as the platform for new game designs, is how development flexibility is enhanced giving OEMs full control. With two intelligent computer boards that communicate via Ethernet ports as the foundation, OEMs have the freedom to select the right complement of components to meet their game’s functionality and graphics requirements and as well as their cost goals. For today’s complex games, the selection of the optimum and latest AMD or Intel processors, possibly with quad-core parallel compute capabilities, can be a vital consideration that ensures performance-per-watt advantages can be gained.

Flexibility for future games is also achieved from dual architecture gaming logic box solutions, such as the EFCO EGL50X5, that provides a pre-qualified I/O board. While every customer must have their own new slot machine system certified as well, they gain peace-of-mind that the I/O has gone through the process, so they know it can pass. A viable case in point would be a casino game system that has been certified with a new dual architecture pre-certified I/O board with an Intel® Atom™ that offers a 15-year lifecycle. Not having to recertify again for 10 years extrapolates into a considerable benefit in time and requalification costs.

These time and cost-saving advantages allow OEMs to further speed time-to-market on same-platform designs or upgrades. When an exciting new game trend takes hold, OEMs can keep their competitive advantage by migrating to any higher performance media board. By delivering the facilitating foundation that stimulates innovative games without being tied to a static feature set, separate media and I/O architectures are the versatile platforms developers can rely on to leverage the highest performance while meeting connectivity and security requirements for many years to come.


Ron Mazza is CEO, EFCOtec Corporation. Mazza drives EFCOtec’s business strategy, tapping more than 40 years of leadership in embedded business development, sales, marketing, and operations management. Connect with Ron on LinkedIn or via email at ron.mazza(at)efcotec.com.

How a Space Warp Technique Helps Gamers

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

At CES in January, AMD acknowledged the strength of the mobile market and announced that it will add a Vega-architecture-based Graphics Processor Unit (GPU).

In Las Vegas, details were tantalizingly scant, but a few weeks later, Nick Pandher, Director of Market Development for Radeon Professional Graphics, and Scott Wasson, Senior Manager of Technical Marketing, AMD, were happy to flesh out some more of the details in a conversation with EECatalog.

Vega Mobile is built to be small and consume relatively low power, but one of the benchmarks for performance is to meet the bar for Virtual Reality (VR) solutions with a standard level of performance.

Like other Vega discrete offerings for the company, the low-power Radeon Vega GPU uses HBM2 memory technology to reduce the size and thickness of the GPU. HBM2 is the next generation of the High Bandwidth Memory (HBM) standard, where memory dies are stacked to increase the density. “It is based on Vega GPU architecture, introduced last year in bigger chips,” says Scott Wasson. “This is the smaller version, where we are taking the graphics architecture and offering it across products.” Its slim profile and high performance targets thin and light notebooks.

Meeting Mobile Size Demands
The size has been significantly reduced compared with earlier generations, such as the RX850, which would have multiple GDDR memory chips ringed around it, Wasson points out. HBM2 reduces the chip size in a laptop from the size, length by width, of two decks of playing cards, to the size of a single sugar packet, he says.

Figure 1: AMD CEO, Dr. Lisa Su, holds the latest Vega GPU.

HBM2 also allows for more capacity and more bandwidth in a smaller footprint and at lower power, “as everything is very close together,” explains Wasson. The wide, internal memory interface of HBM2 means that it does not have to run at high clock speeds, yet it can provide a lot of bandwidth, he continues. For Wasson, “The switching performance, frankly, is the clock speed more than power saving.” Its structure means that HBM2 has “some nice power saving properties compared to GDDR5,” the other industry standard, he says.

The drive for size reduction responds to some of the challenges mobile gaming poses. “Gaming workloads are one of the things that drive development of PCs over time, as they use a lot of power for the graphics chips and the Central Processing Unit (CPU); they have to work together,” says Wasson. Trying to fit the kind of speed and performance prowess that processors use to create a more compelling gaming experience into a mobile form factor can present power consumption problems. Other challenges or considerations are: how does the power consumption affect battery life; and how much weight and space will the battery and processor occupy.

Another consideration is thermal management. “The cooling solution that will evaporate heat generated by the chip is directly tied to the power consumption in the chip,” notes Wasson.

Vega Mobile is built to be small and consume relatively low power, but one of the benchmarks for performance is to meet the bar for Virtual Reality (VR) solutions with a standard level of performance. Wasson points out that the Vega Mobile GPU is not VR-ready just yet, but he anticipates that partners will make announcements later this year around VR.

Virtual Reality Complexities
VR gaming products are already shipping. In November 2017, analyst Canalys reported that one million VR headsets were shipped globally in Q3 alone, setting a benchmark for the industry. Another research company, Statistica, predicts that global shipments of VR devices will increase from 2017’s 3.7 million to five million, headed by Sony with two million units, followed by Facebook’s Oculus (one million), HTC Vive, Microsoft, and other players.

A particular challenge to be address by GPUs in VR applications is to provide visual feedback whenever the gamer moves his or her head quickly—it can cause nausea. The window of time to avoid a sense of vertigo or nausea is about 20 milliseconds, says Wasson. AMD worked with Oculus and HTC to create asynchronous time warp, asynchronous space warp, and asynchronous reprojection—all descriptions for creating a low-latency response and delaying telemetry from the headset to the back end of the system and moving the position of the frame. This requires scheduling hardware into AMD software and building software to support the interruption of work and the interjection of new work that can provide a quick update. It also prioritizes work. Wasson describes it thus: “I am working on x, but in order to work on a perception problem with the user, I need to switch and work on y. And I am going to shift quickly to that operation, get the frame out, and then switch back.” For the sophisticated operation of interrupting a schedule, Wasson says AMD must use architectural features that were built in ahead of time, in new ways.

 

Figure 2: VR graphics need techniques like asynchronous space warp to avoid nausea and vertigo. (Image credit – HTC Vibe.)

The next step from gaming, is to use high-performance, low-power GPUs in areas outside of the gaming arena. “What we are seeing today is more extensive frameworks,” says Nick Pandher.

“We had OpenCL to introduce an open view to programming a GPU that was vendor-agnostic. What we are starting to develop is taking these next generation frameworks built around specific deep neural networks or deep learning use cases and adapting these to be very high performance on a GPU.” Deep learning frameworks (for example TensorFlow, Caffe, and Torch) are areas of interest. “TensorFlow is a big interest for Vega type architectures in compute use cases outside of the gaming space,” he says. In autonomous driving for example, algorithms can look at elements in an image and the GPU can dissect them in real time to provide a view.

“We see a variety of people using Vega class GPUs to analyze Gbytes of data and use that to improve an algorithm. . . An algorithm can become indicative of how a user is driving, and the algorithm should adapt,” he proposes. Pandher also suggests that as higher capability is introduced, people want to keep frameworks on a CPU and move select parts of an algorithm to GPUs to leverage higher performance. This way, the 20-plus years of investment in CPU-based algorithms can be leveraged.

“We are barely touching the tip of the iceberg for deep learning,” says Pandher. “As capabilities on the GPU side become more enriched with performance, we will see more of these experimental areas turn into proper, defined products as well,” he predicts.


Caroline Hayes has been a journalist covering the electronics sector for more than 20 years. She has worked on several European titles, reporting on a variety of industries, including communications, broadcast and automotive.

Gaming: Another Notch towards Respectability

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

eSports, VR arcades, and competitive gaming for serious prize money form a growing market. Autonomous cars learn to drive by playing Grand Theft Auto.

Premium PC gaming performance can get fairly expensive, especially when gamers want to mega-task by gaming on a 4K display while recording and streaming games for others to watch. High-end gaming platforms qualify as High-Performance Computing (HPC) to many. Gaming is not just the domain of young men, either; the average gamer’s age is 35 years old and 48 percent of gamers are women. Gaming technology is leveraged into alternative uses for motivation in education, training, and simulators, which closely follow gaming technology.[i]

Curiously enough, the computer game Grand Theft Auto provides the high-capacity model that is necessary to achieve training with extremely large data sets. The large data sets are needed for the deep learning that self-driving cars use to make decisions in neural networks. A team of researchers from Darmstadt University (Germany) and Intel Labs have created software that automatically classifies objects in the game’s road scenes; a task which would be very time-consuming if people had to identify and label them manually. Using Grand Theft Auto, researchers were able to automatically generate labels and feed them into a machine-learning algorithm. In this way, the self-driving car’s “brain” can recognize pedestrians, cars, and other objects, even as each new encounter varies in the angle of viewpoint, color, direction of motion, and so forth.

Deep learning trumps mere image-matching, since homogeneity is not required for neural networks that use deep learning to “recognize” objects as they appear in everyday life. In the paper “Playing for Data: Ground Truth from Computer Games,” the authors “validate the presented approach by producing dense pixel-level semantic annotations for 25 thousand images synthesized by a photorealistic open-world computer game.”[ii] Apparently, games aren’t just for gamers anymore.

Figure 1: Grand Theft Auto is a valuable tool for a deep-learning exercise for self-driving cars. Human annotators are not needed to delineate object boundaries; associations between image patches can be reconstructed from the communication between the game and the graphics hardware. (Source: Playing for Data: Ground Truth from Computer Games.ii)

Figure 1: Grand Theft Auto is a valuable tool for a deep-learning exercise for self-driving cars. Human annotators are not needed to delineate object boundaries; associations between image patches can be reconstructed from the communication between the game and the graphics hardware. (Source: Playing for Data: Ground Truth from Computer Games.ii)

According to Intel, there are more than 1.2 billion PC gamers worldwide, although only a fraction are hard-core gamers that require the 10-core CPUs that Intel touts. The PC is the tool of choice for the serious gamer, as gaming PCs outperform the one-size-fits-all console. PCs can also be future-proofed by obtaining higher performance equipment. A PC capable of mega-tasking can also be justified as dual-role equipment for accomplishing everyday tasks.

Gaming in itself is serious business, however. An emerging market in gaming is eSports, “a cultural phenomenon expected to reach about 500 million fans worldwide by 2020.”[iii] The Intel® Extreme Masters (EMI) championship hosts gaming talent and the latest one boasts more than 173,000 in-person attendees and as many as 46 million unique viewers to the streaming portion of the event.[iv] According to Intel, EMI is the “longest running global pro gaming tour in the world.” Started in 2006 by Electronic Sports League (ESL), the competition features Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, StarCraft II, and League of Legends tournaments across multiple continents. ESL is an eSport (competitive video gaming) company that inked a deal with Intel, revealed at the recent E3 gaming conference. Intel will power the gaming platforms and associated electronics as ESL’s “official technology partner.” Intel is also offering a $1 million prize via the Intel Grand Slam for the winning team.

 Figure 2: At E3, Intel’s Gregory Bryant showcases the power of the Intel® Core™ i7 X-series processor with a mega-tasking demonstration. (Source: Intel)

Figure 2: At E3, Intel’s Gregory Bryant showcases the power of the Intel® Core™ i7 X-series processor with a mega-tasking demonstration. (Source: Intel)

Teams that win these games can make some serious money, and the equipment they play on has to be superlative. Gaming consoles simply cannot hold a candle to the power that the high-performance computing platforms provide in the form of a personal computer. According to Intel and ESL, “Intel’s technology will be the backbone for ESL’s eSports events, studios and broadcasting operations, with all tournament PCs running the latest Intel® Core™ i7 processors and all of ESL’s production hardware running on a combination of Intel® Core™ and Xeon™ processors.”[v]

Gaming has evolved from single-player games such as the humble Pong, Space Invaders, Wolfenstein, and a long evolution of other games played on a single PC to massive multi-player games that are played across time zones and the internet. Gaming has become a spectator sport. Gaming is taking a growing chunk of the entertainment market with it.

Gaming HPC Platforms Demand the Latest Technology
Similar to financial markets that seek the tiniest edge in rapid computer trading, serious gaming requires the best technology in order to gain an edge on the competition. The higher-performing gaming platforms today include motherboards with the latest display and memory technologies, and the top gaming processors include the new Intel Core X-Series processors with up to 10 cores. Intel’s Core™ i7 processor (Extreme Edition) is one of the most powerful gaming processors available. Gaming is more than the processor, however, as the best PC gaming platforms will include a Solid State Drive (SSD) and a good graphics card.

SSDs are much faster than the Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) that we have used since nearly the beginning of PCs. Early mass storage devices were tape drives, but platters with read/write heads moved by stepper motors have been in existence for more than 50 years. The seek and spin functions of HDDs eat a lot of time. But SDDs, with no moving parts, do not have to spin to retrieve data. SSDs make data retrieval faster, and SSD prices have been coming down. While SSDs are known to degrade over a very long period of time, in the gaming universe, other components are more likely to experience technology decay, before the SSD wears out.

Graphics cards have always aged quickly as newer, faster models come out faster than you can pay the credit card bill for the last one. Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) process repetitive computations at a breakneck speed. GPUs originally created to handle the compute-intensive task of rendering graphics. CPUs were thus off-loaded to improve overall performance. Applications demanding fast, repetitive computations, such as mining bitcoin and machine learning, use GPUs. Real-time imaging is even more important in a graphics card if Virtual Reality (VR) is involved. Rendering in near real time requires frame buffers of 10GB or more. VR can make people nauseated if frame rates lag behind the accelerometer input that is tracking the movements of the person wearing the headset.

To handle the extreme loading and provide extra edge needed for competitive games, Intel Core X-series processors are designed to meet the instantaneous need by using the two fastest cores at higher frequencies and fully utilizing up to 18 cores with extreme mega-tasking. The processor series is also unlocked to allow users to overclock core by core for extreme scenarios using the Intel Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU) for Windows based machines. Even those inexperienced at overclocking can use the Intel XTU to overclock and monitor an Intel-powered system with a software interface by selecting a profile rather than agonizing over each parameter in BIOS. Users have the ability to reset back to the default profile if a profile doesn’t work out or if the user wants to use the PC for less demanding applications (and save power). Advanced overclocking capability is also provided for the expert or intermediate user.

Gaming is growing less virtual and more real with real-time VR immersion experiences in gaming that are increasingly brought within purchasing-distance of the middle class by the decreasing cost of high-performance chips. VR gaming arcades are popping up around the U.S. to provide more people a gaming experience that they are unlikely to forget. Last but not least, teens everywhere have a reason to justify buying Grand Theft Auto to skeptical parents, thanks to a scientific paper touting the benefits of the game in deep learning to drive.

LynnetteReese_115Lynnette Reese is Editor-in-Chief, Embedded Intel Solutions and Embedded Systems Engineering, and has been working in various roles as an electrical engineer for over two decades. She is interested in open source software and hardware, the maker movement, and in increasing the number of women working in STEM so she has a greater chance of talking about something other than football at the water cooler.


[i] Doug Fisher and Kirk Skaugen, IDF 2015.

[ii] Richter S.R., Vineet V., Roth S., Koltun V. (2016). Playing for Data: Ground Truth from Computer Games. In: Leibe B., Matas J., Sebe N., Welling M. (eds) European Conference on Computer Vision – ECCV 2016. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 9906. Springer, Cham

[iii] “Taking Gaming and eSports to the Extreme at E3.” Intel Newsroom. Intel Corporation, 12 June 2017. Web. 29 June 2017.

[iv] Soqui, Frank. “Helping the World Get Its Game on at Intel Extreme Masters and Beyond.” Intel Newsroom. Intel Corporation, 16 Mar. 2017. Web. 29 June 2017.

[v] Taking Gaming and eSports to the Extreme at E3.” Intel Newsroom. Intel Corporation, 12 June 2017. Web. 29 June 2017.

What is Reality Anyway?

Monday, February 6th, 2017

Definitions do exist for Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality–along with challenges as these technologies step up to disrupt entertainment and enterprise.

Virtual Reality (VR) is the projection of a 3D image into which the VR headset wearer can immerse themselves. The image manipulation is well established from Computer Aided Design (CAD) software which can show a 360° view of objects. VR is used primarily for gaming, but it is being explored for sales, for example, to showcase a home in a real estate sale, or ‘try out’ a resort or experience by travel companies. An example of VR made popular, is Oculus Rift, which was bought by Facebook in 2014.

“As the unit is worn on the head, the battery cannot add too much extra weight. “Large heat sinks can also add to the bulk and weight of the design, making heat dissipation a consideration as well.”

Augmented Reality (AR), sometimes called Mixed Reality, presents layers of images and information through glasses which also allow the wearer to view the real world. This means users can be aware when there is a wall or a table in the real world, while they are in the AR world. For example, the wearer can drink a cup of coffee while wearing the AR headset without missing the cup or missing setting it down on a surface. It also means the end of YouTube videos where some hapless gamer falls over a chair, or the family dog, while saving the universe in a VR world.

Figure 1: The Microsoft HoloLens uses holographic technology and specialized components for Mixed Reality (MR).

Figure 1: The Microsoft HoloLens uses holographic technology and specialized components for Mixed Reality (MR).

An example of AR is the Microsoft HoloLens, with commercial and developer editions available today. The company describes it as a self-contained holographic computer, with specialized components, including multiple sensors, optics and a chipset that uses 24 Tensilica DSPs. It uses holographic technology to project virtual images that look like they are in the real world, while still letting the wearer see through to the real world (See Figure 1).

Figure 2: Augmented Reality with HoloLens turns a room into a space battleground.

Figure 2: Augmented Reality with HoloLens turns a room into a space battleground.

One of the limitations of any wearable technology is power. The HoloLens is driven by the battery life which dictates the length of play-time. As the unit is worn on the head, the battery cannot add too much extra weight. Equally, consideration must be given to heat dissipation, as adding large heat sinks can also add to the bulk and weight of the design.

I put the HoloLens through its paces at the Cadence booth at CES (Figure 2). While I was getting to grips with how to zap mutants that were coming at me, Neil Robinson, Director of Segment Marketing, IP Group at Cadence, explained that the Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) provide sensor fusion along with real-time processing of depth, camera, orientation and temperature sensor inputs.

“CPUs and GPUs were unable to deliver low enough power while also delivering real-time performance,” Robinson comments. He adds, “CPUs are general-purpose, so they are not efficient at doing the sensor processing. GPUs are specialized at pixel/polygon rendering and so are also not efficient at the sensor processing, but are better than CPUs.”

Something Special
“In the end, [Microsoft] needed something special,” says Robinson. “That typically involves a huge development task to create a new processor from scratch—taking decades of man years of effort and lots of risk.” The company selected Tensilica processor IP. It’s a choice that allows customers to customize the processor—taking far less time and risk, explains Robinson. “Customers start from a working processor and modify it using a simple language that maps into a fully automated process that creates the processor and all the advanced tools needed to write code on it.”

I also tried to shoot a quiver of arrows at a target in an idyllic garden setting, at the Lattice Semiconductor booth. The Vive VR underscores the roles that Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) play in handsets, gyroscopes and accelerometers to mix the data streams for a VR system. In this version (Figure 3) there are 32 Infra-Red (IR) sensors in the handset and 24 sensors in each controller. The VR system requires a lot of I/O and processing. FPGAs collect sensor data and provide an interface to the processor. For real-time performance, the data can be time-stamped, and the Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI) can be amended as required. The processor may not have a sensor interface, so the FPGA can convert data to a suitable format for the processor of choice.

Figure 3: Two Lattice Semiconductor iCE40 FPGAs are used in the Vive headset and one in the controller.

Figure 3: Two Lattice Semiconductor iCE40 FPGAs are used in the Vive headset and one in the controller.

Ying Jen Chen, Senior Business Development Manager, Lattice Semiconductor, explains some of the functions needed for a typical VR system. “VR is about low latency, with high bandwidth displays and accurate spatial tracking,” he says. “Much of the processing, bridging and interface with sensors’ arrays are more suitable inside FPGAs. Other low-cost programmable devices, such as an MCU, often do not have the performance needed to process video, nor the I/O and parallel architecture to deal with a sensor array.”

The parallel architecture of the FPGA and the high I/O count make the device suited to concurrent data capture and processing, asserts Chen. He cites the LatticeECP3 and ECP5 which have the logic capability to provide real-time and low latency embedded video processing. The company’s Crosslink can provide high bandwidth camera and display bridging, he says, while the iCE40 low power family is optimized for sensor array interface and processing, and the iCE40 UltraPlus FPGA adds more embedded memory and DSP blocks “which can greatly help with data buffering, sensor fusion and processing,” he adds.

The Vive is a tethered VR system, but a wireless upgrade kit has been announced by TPCAST that uses Lattice’s WirelessHD and a suite of FPGA and ASSP products to upgrade Head-Mount Display (HMD) VR systems (Figure 4).

The TPCAST 2.0 protocol supports wireless transmission of HD display and feedback control for smart devices and computers at up to 4K resolution at 120Hz. It provides, says the company, near-zero latency transmission for both the display and controllers.

The upgrade kit includes Lattice’s MOD6320-T/MOD6321-R WirelessHD modules offering near-zero latency and non-line of sight (NLOS) performance. It also features the SiI9396 600MHz HDMI bridge IC, LatticeECP3 SERDES-based FPGA, as well as the TPCAST 2.0 protocol and algorithm. The ensemble supports wireless transmission of VR display resolution at 2160 x 1200 at 90Hz.

Figure 4: TPCAST Technologies’ 2.0 protocol supports up to 4k resolution for wireless VR HMDs.

Figure 4: TPCAST Technologies’ 2.0 protocol supports up to 4k resolution for wireless VR HMDs.


hayes_caroline_115Caroline Hayes has been a journalist covering the electronics sector for more than 20 years. She has worked on several European titles, reporting on a variety of industries, including communications, broadcast and automotive.

Great Specs-But Can It Run “Crysis”?

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Surveying what it takes to deliver a superior gaming experience.

Today’s video gaming industry is big business with total revenues for the industry in the U.S. hitting $23.5 billion last year—a 5% jump over 2014, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the industry lobbying body, which also hosts the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show. All the major industry players—software and hardware—are reaping profit margins at record levels, with software sales leading with some $16.5 billion, a jump of 7% from the 2014 figures and hardware manufacturers seeing their best sales ever. The prediction is that this growth trend will continue mainly because software sales are largely viewed as the best barometer of the industry’s growth and overall health.

Figure 1: The VR gaming experience is leading the way to an even more immersive video game experience. Source: iStock

Figure 1: The VR gaming experience is leading the way to an even more immersive video game experience. Source: iStock

The Driving Force
Driving this growth in the video game industry is a plethora of micro industries, and each is driving innovation, whether it’s creating more complex and demanding software for video games or developing the hardware to support them. The aggregated result reveals a very robust video gaming industry that’s driving innovation on par with a host of other technologies like drones, smartphones, brain mapping, 3D printing, robotics, smart wind, solar power, and mobile collaboration. The convergence and maturation of all these technologies such as 3-D rendering, networking speed, video resolution, processor speed, memory, storage and accessibility via low-cost video game platforms has not only helped fuel demand, but has increased the breadth of video game culture across many platforms and multiple formats (e.g., bringing Pokémon to mobile phones as figments of augmented reality.)

The Gamer’s Culture
The social interaction enabled by Internet-hosted platforms where hundreds of gamers interact in the same game (e.g., World of Warcraft) and share their gaming experience and camaraderie (e.g., forums) has created a unique demand across all generations that has led to about half of American adults (49%) playing games on computers, consoles, television, or mobile devices. And 10% of those adults consider themselves to be “gamers.”

Figure 2: Demographics of those who play video games. Source: Pew Research Center - Survey conducted Jun 10 - July 12, 2015

Figure 2: Demographics of those who play video games. Source: Pew Research Center - Survey conducted Jun 10 - July 12, 2015

Another contributing phenomenon is the emergence of gaming as a spectator sport, something like Sunday Night Football. Whether this will grow to Olympic proportions remains to be seen, but dedicated video game-streaming channels have become well-known Internet sites, such as Twitch, which claims to be the world’s leading video platform and community for gamers, with more than 45 million gamers. YouTube Gaming is another streaming venue, where gamers are connected to favorite games and other players and have developed a culture that matters to them.

Figure 3: Equal numbers of men and women ever play video games, although men are twice as likely to call themselves “gamers”. Source: Pew Research Center Image: iStock

Figure 3: Equal numbers of men and women ever play video games, although men are twice as likely to call themselves “gamers”. Source: Pew Research Center Image: iStock

Evolution of the Video Game
Early arcade video games of the 1970s consisted of single-colored squares; pixilated images on a cathode ray tube (CRT). These early video games were extremely low resolution by today’s standards but soon incorporated 256 colors and antialiasing to smooth out the graphics, giving early game players at least an illusion of smoothness and action. Soon these early games progressed to include joysticks with lots of buttons, followed by game controllers with active haptic feedback, and of course flat LCD displays. Dedicated gaming platforms appeared, including massive hard-disk storage and memory. Price drops in flat monitor displays triggered the gaming-across-multiple-monitors trend. Dedicated gaming platforms evolved to include premium audio and WiFi connectivity.

Today’s modern video games have evolved to test and push the limits of the latest gaming hardware. Faster central processing units (CPUs), dedicated graphics processing units (GPUs), ultra-high-definition (UHD) displays and high fidelity surround sound have fused to deliver amazing realism. For those who were still asking, “What’s Next?” along came virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, leading the way to an even more immersive video game experience. It’s literally possible to live in a VR world for 100% of one’s social life. Large, old, overweight men are tiny fairies and elven creatures in Second Life. The beauty of the gaming world is in being able to live out your fantasies as another person. The ugly of the gaming world is that anonymity breeds a sense, in some gamers, that behaving badly has no consequences; and this is mostly true for the one dishing it out, but not for the one receiving it.

Technical Jargon—FPS, Hz, 4K and Beyond
Many gamers don’t seem to care about detailed technical specifications behind the video games they play. But they can’t escape the exposure to acronyms associated with video games: 4k, FPS, Hz, 1080P, GPU…and these acronyms are printed on retail boxes housing the newest game or hardware. Without getting into the weeds on the details, let’s instead just clear up some common misconceptions with FPS and refresh rates:

  • FPS: Frames per Second, which refers to how many distinct images a GPU outputs, per second. In gaming with lots of action, the higher the FPS, the better. (Full motion video is considered as 30 FPS. The ability to render graphics greater than 100 FPS is possible with a top-of-the-line platform, but most people will not notice improvement beyond 150 FPS. (See Figure 4.)
  • Refresh Rate = Number of times a screen is capable of displaying per second, measured in frequency (Hz).

Therefore, if your refresh rate is 60Hz, your frame rate is capped at 60 FPS. Since your GPU is now producing fewer frames per second, you can take advantage of the GPU’s left over capacity to increase resolution, draw distance, or other graphics quality settings. However, if you have a 60Hz monitor, and the platform is putting out 120 FPS, you only display 60 frames. Likewise, if you have a 120Hz monitor and 75 FPS output, you will see 75 unique frames on the display.

Today’s displays are pushing the envelope well beyond mere 4k resolution and 120Hz refresh rates. GPUs are capable of frame rates in excess of 120-140 FPS (and higher tomorrow, as of this writing). GPUs have onboard memory upwards of 8GB of GDDR5X (as of today) with speeds ball-parking at 10Gbps. The future looks brighter every day for a fusion of technologies, making some form of holodeck within reach in a young gamer’s lifetime.

Figure 4: Comparison of modern graphic cards -FPS | Source: PCGamer.com

Figure 4: Comparison of modern graphic cards -FPS | Source: PCGamer.com

The Perfect Storm—Convergence of Technology, Economics and Demand
Ultimately, what delivers the best gaming experience to the gamer is a balance of price and performance. This balance is a combination of a game’s software and graphics demands, the hardware to support it, and the industry’s ability to deliver it to the masses at an optimal price point. Video games are meant to be played by “gamers” and “game players” alike. Whether or not a platform can successfully render a demanding game such as the latest version of Crysis or the much-anticipated Star Citizen, ultimately the sustaining force behind the gaming industry is not the video games but the people who play them and the culture they perpetuate.


RudyRamos_blogRudy Ramos is the Project Manager for the Technical Content Marketing team at Mouser Electronics, accountable for the timely delivery of the Application and Technology sites from concept to completion. He has 30 years of experience working with electromechanical systems, manufacturing processes, military hardware, and managing domestic and international technical projects. He holds an MBA from Keller Graduate School of Management with a concentration in Project Management. Prior to Mouser, he worked for National Semiconductor and Texas Instruments. Rudy may be reached at rudy.ramos@mouser.com.


References
Chris Morris. (2016, February 16). Fortune. Retrieved August 3, 2016, from Level up! Video Game Industry Revenues Soar in 2015: http://fortune.com/2016/02/16/video-game-industry-revenues-2015/

John Dugan. (2015, December 15). Gaming and Gamers. Retrieved from Pew Research Center: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/12/15/gaming-and-gamers/

Nikita Fedorov. (n.d.). Frame Rate (FPS) vs Refresh Rate (Hz). Retrieved from AvaDirect.com: http://www.avadirect.com/blog/frame-rate-fps-vs-hz-refresh-rate/

You Can Bet on It: Building a Gaming Infotainment Platform

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Add an element of “gaming” to a point-of-sale, digital sign, vending machine or traditional Las Vegas style device and you’ve created an Infotainment Platform that requires special design steps.

When a user’s money, ID or other sensitive information is involved, an “infotainment” system takes on a more serious design focus. Although an Intel-based small form factor board like COM Express or Mini-ITX may be at the core of such designs, infotainment platforms require special design procedures, certification(s), and extra care.

Whether point-of-sale retail-like kiosks, interactive vending or Las Vegas-style gaming machines (Figure 1), all of these designs follow rigorous standards and may require certifications and industry protocols, yet still need to preserve years of a game manufacturer’s legacy hardware and software. And they must service and entertain the user—the only element of the design the user really cares about.

Let’s look at three key suggestions for designing a gaming-style Infotainment system, seen through the view of embedded systems expert ADLINK Technology.

Figure 1: Video gaming infotainment system. (Courtesy: Wiki Commons; shot by Craig Howell from San Carlos, CA, USA)

Figure 1: Video gaming infotainment system. (Courtesy: Wiki Commons; shot by Craig Howell from San Carlos, CA, USA)

Infotainment and Intel

An Infotainment platform such as a vending machine meets the core purpose—to vend product, to gamble, or to complete a sales transaction—but it also entertains the user. “Smart” vending machines may recognize the user’s face, suggest products to buy with catchy animated graphics, or interact with the user’s in-air arm gestures. In short: an Infotainment machine should also be fun to use.

Intel may have coined the term “Infotainment” as something like multimedia merged with performance-based embedded processing. Intel’s latest CPUs have amazing 3D graphics, loads of I/O to interface with sensors such as RealSense cameras or slot machine mechanisms, and built-in software extensions designed to secure payments, data, and the user’s identity.  In short, infotainment platform hardware is often based on Intel Core CPUs.

Big Money

But gaming-style Infotainment is also big business. According to www.statista.com, there are 1,511 casinos in the U.S. alone (2015) with an estimated revenue of nearly $65.5 billion. Las Vegas itself is about $6.2 billion; this kind of big money requires specialty electronics. And the electronics vary depending upon the kind of game played.

There are a handful of Tier 1 companies in the financial gaming machines space. Depending on size, the company can be completely vertically integrated—designing their own Infotainment electronics—or might outsource some or all of the embedded parts. Not all of these machines are slot machines, Keno or Poker, and companies may also sell the software game running on the machines.

Lock Me Up

Gaming is usually controlled by a government as a tax source and is heavily regulated, while the global Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers (AGEM) represents the interests of the gaming industry in both the U.S. and abroad.  In addition, there are several businesses and organizations that have developed peripheral device interface and protocol standards for gaming machines, including Gaming Standard Association’s G2S protocol and relatively new GDS (Gaming Device Standard) protocol for common interfaces like bill acceptors and coin changers.  Gaming Laboratories International (GLI) is another contributor to gaming standards, while also acting as a test lab to check for regulatory compliance in different governmental jurisdictions. These are in place so vendors and users can’t—ahem!—game the system by cheating, either to avoid taxes or commit theft.

According to Dirk Finstel, CEO EMEA & Executive Vice President of ADLINK´s Module Computing Product Segment, regulated games can be categorized as Tier I through Tier III.  Machine types can be Class II (games of chance, such as bingo), Class III (casino games like blackjack or roulette), video lottery terminal (VLT), server-based gaming (SBG), electronic gaming machines (EGM), fixed-odds betting terminal (FOBT), amusement with prize (AWP) and more.  As well, these infotainment platforms might require GLI testing to assure gaming compliance and security.

The Intel-based hardware controlling these machines is largely in common form factors such as Mini-ITX, PCIe add-in cards, or purpose-built gaming boxes (often embedding one of the other form factors). Intel’s latest Haswell, Broadwell, and Skylake Core processors are popular. Games may require basic graphics and minimal processor performance, or multiple independent displays and highest-resolution 3D rendering.

Interfaces include RS-232 and USB 2.0/3.0, plus a cadre of gaming/infotainment style I/O like ccTalk, and use protocols such as ID003 and EBDS. Think of the yellow/red/green tower annunciator on the top of a slot machine or a currency (bill) reader that alerts officials to winners or a machine error such as a full coin box in a casino—all are gaming-specific hardware.

For money-based infotainment platforms, the designer’s concern is how a bad actor (“thief”) might gain access to the system and ultimately cheat to obtain money. Secondary concerns are also with the operators: “skimming” money to avoid taxes or “rigging” systems to avoid payouts.

Systems are mechanically locked down to prevent easy access, but if one could intercept the signals to the currency reader, even Monopoly money could pass for a $20.00 bill.  The designer’s challenge is to minimize the attack surfaces—from I/O to the processor and memory—and to comply with regulations while still entertaining the user so (s)he will spend more money.

These all make for a challenging design.

What to Know…and Do

According to ADLINK’s Finstel, infotainment designs fall into two broad categories: legacy designs and new designs. In both cases the system box or chassis is seen as an attack surface. GLI standards make mechanical recommendations that go as far as how to design a cover that uses tamper-proof screws. Within the design itself, GLI also provides useful guidance on how to lock down memories such as one-time programmable PROMs or E2PROMs.

Our first tip is for legacy designs where the machine’s software and processing are being upgraded to contemporary game expectations with better graphics: think of the difference between Pong or Pacman and 2015’s Fallout 4. Here, the Intel CPU/graphics sub-system is upgraded and new software is run, but the machine interfaces remain the same.  ADLINK’s answer to this kind of infotainment platform is to use an intelligent infotainment USB I/O controller hub. The company’s ADi-SIOG adds crypto and authentication, secure memory, gaming I/O protocols, and 32 inputs and 32 outputs (Figure 2).

Figure 2: An Intelligent Infotainment USB I/O Controller Hub maintains legacy I/O while interfacing to upgraded processor and graphics hardware. (Courtesy: ADLINK.)

Figure 2: An Intelligent Infotainment USB I/O Controller Hub maintains legacy I/O while interfacing to upgraded processor and graphics hardware. (Courtesy: ADLINK.)

The company’s ADi-SIOG is specifically intended for infotainment platforms like gaming and point-of-sale, while meeting Class II/III games, VLT/SBC, and AWP. It handles crypto on-board along with authentication, and handles common gaming protocols like ccTalk, ID003, SSP and more. The beauty of this solution for legacy equipment is how it meets regulations and certifications, is secure, yet provides USB-to-serial connections for up to 32 inputs and 32 outputs. The board also supports ADLINK’s Peripheral Device Library via iAPI; more on that below.

Box-Built

ADLINK’s Finstel offers a second tip: to choose a gaming platform that’s designed from the ground up for compliance and interfaces. ADLINK started the process of designing gaming platforms in late 2013 and introduced its first products two years later; those 24 months were spent designing, validating and certifying, says Finstel. The company offers two purpose-built infotainment platforms called Infotainment Box PCs: ADi-SA1X and -SA2X. They vary with options and I/O.

The ADi-SA2X, for example, is based upon a Mini-ITX standard card with an Intel CPU and a TDP from 35 to 65W at 50C (Figure 3). The controller can drive up to 8 displays such as video gaming terminals or POS kiosks, includes a TPM for secure authentication root-of-trust, and provides slots for various I/O plug-ins. One such add-on is the USB-to-I/O card shown in Figure 3. Field-removable disks allow fast software updates with minimal downtime, as well as immediate system de-authentication (“brain dead”) should the need arise.

Figure 3: ADLINK’s ADi-SA2X is a Mini-ITX, purpose-built gaming/infotainment box meeting standards and supporting legacy I/O. (Courtesy: ADLINK)

Figure 3: ADLINK’s ADi-SA2X is a Mini-ITX, purpose-built gaming/infotainment box meeting standards and supporting legacy I/O. (Courtesy: ADLINK)

Here’s the Hottest Tip

As noted above, the hardware for infotainment systems consists of standard components plus security provisions, but the compliance certifications accompanying some hardware is a game-changer. Hardware designed for infotainment and gaming systems speeds time to market. But even more important, says ADLINK’s Dirk Finstel, is a robust software ecosystem.

ADLINK’s SEMA cloud, a software stack designed for the IoT that extends diagnostics and control from end nodes into the cloud, is directly applicable to gaming platforms. It can allow operators and regulators to monitor infotainment platforms from afar, update software, and reconfigure systems. SEMA Cloud is shown at the top of the stack in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Middleware makes infotainment designs easier with APIs to common gaming hardware, plus protocols that bridge to the greater Internet of Things (IoT). (Courtesy: ADLINK.)

Figure 4: Middleware makes infotainment designs easier with APIs to common gaming hardware, plus protocols that bridge to the greater Internet of Things (IoT). (Courtesy: ADLINK.)

Equally important is middleware (software) that abstracts the peripheral hardware from the rest of the system, and includes easy ways to communicate with the broader IoT. ADLINK, for example, invested years in developing the Intelligent Infotainment Middleware (iAPI) that works with peripheral hardware like the USB controller in Figure 2.

This combination of infotainment-specific middleware, hardware, and gaming certifications plus purpose-built boards and boxes is probably the best bet in designing an infotainment-based gaming platform.

This article was sponsored by ADLINK Technology.


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