Does Atsana Hold the Wi-Fi Multimedia Silver Bullet?

By Ed Sutherland

April 26, 2002

Encoding streaming multimedia for transmission over 802.11 networks can suck all the power from connected devices. Atsana Semiconductor thinks it has the answer to the power shortage.

Much of the talk surrounding multimedia over a WLAN or a Wi-Fi-enabled PDA has addressed just one side: the viewing of videos or photos. But as more and more people buy camera attachments to stream multimedia over 802.11 connections, Michael Krause sees demand for his product heating up.

Unlike the relatively straightforward task of decoding graphics for display on an iPAQ or laptop screen, the job of encoding video for transmission over an 802.11 connection can tax to the limit many wireless devices. So intense is the mobile encoding process that a camera-equipped PDA or camera with an 802.11 link can become high-tech hand-warmers, says Krause, chief operating officer of Atsana Semiconductor, headquartered in Ottawa, Ontario.

A silicon/software combination unveiled by Atsana could produce better quality images while requiring one-third the power of current hard-wired Digital Signal Processors. The processor will be available in September.

Atsana's wireless multimedia processor cools down Wi-Fi video encoding by decreasing the power needed to do all the needed number-crunching. Rather than have one very fast (and heat-intensive) processor simultaneously manipulating data, Atsana employs thousands of one-bit single instruction multiple data (SIMD) processors. The SIMDs form a massively parallel array to tackle tasks such as color-correction. The result is 15 times the processing power while reducing the power drain on wireless devices.

Soon after its introduction, OmniVision said it was including the processor in a reference design of its CameraChip module. The camera is a mere slice of silicon that includes a lens. Such chips are embedded in wireless PDAs, allowing law enforcement surveillance, or as a monitor in industrial settings which can be streamed to supervisors via Wi-Fi.

OmniVision chose Atsana's processor for its programmability, providing MPEG-4, JPEG and image preprocessing and image stabilization. A final reference design of the module will be available in late 2002.

Krause expects his company in two weeks will announce a wireless PC camera product that includes an 802.11 interface. The tiny camera that sits on your desktop monitor or clips to your laptop display is about to be overhauled, replacing the annoying cables with an elegant wireless solution, along with trading in ghost-like images for clear VGA or NTSC pictures.

Also on the horizon for Atsana is networked wireless cameras with their own IP addresses. The cameras could be accessed from anywhere over the Internet. Krause sees corporations checking in at work sites via the company WLAN, factory managers solving production line delays from their 802.11 PDA and police officers viewing crime scene photos from a squad car laptop.

While increased use of wireless cameras depends on the continued development of high-speed 3G networks, Krause says he "doesn't want to wait" before entering the market. Krause points to his software's programmability, allowing quick development times for applications, rather than waiting much longer for an all-silicon alternative.

Nokia and Motorola recently announced plans to use Texas Instruments' OMAP DSP for next-generation multimedia handheld wireless devices. Krause called TI's DSP "power-hungry."

Atsana, a fabless semiconductor company, has been developing methods of transmitting multimedia over wireless networks since the firm's 1999 inception, when it was Lumica Electronics.

Krause says Atsana's processor is the silver bullet for Wi-Fi devices needing multimedia power without the usual battery-draining results. "Think of being able to hold a hand-held video conference for 45 minutes without your batteries dying. This is the kind of application we enable," says Krause.

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