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Sheffield 99 Monday, 13 September, 1999, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Writing the hardware for fast video
circuit board
Computer chip design is being streamlined by "writing hardware"
by News Online's Damian Carrington

Huge improvements in delivering quality video through the Web or even to mobile telephones is being driven by a new concept in computer chip design - "writing hardware".

Festival of Science
It uses the principles of software writing to make the process of creating fast, image-processing chips much cheaper, said Professor John McCanny, Queen's University Belfast, at the Festival of Science.

Hundreds of times faster

It takes billions of computations per second to produce good, real time video and therefore very fast chips are needed. Traditional chips do these computations one after the other and are "way, way too slow," said Professor McCanny.

However, by tiling a chip with myriads of simple "nanocomputers" and making them work together simultaneously (in parallel), the information can be processed up to hundreds of times faster, he claimed.

Chips designed in days

chip under microscope
Traditional chips "way too slow", says Prof. McCanny
The nanocomputers can be of several different designs and the whole chip is tailored specifically to the particular mathematical calculations required. The problem in the past has been that such a complex chip would have taken teams of engineers years to design.

But it can now be done in weeks or even days using software which delves into libraries of nanocomputer designs and arrangements.

"These are not just pie-in-the-sky ideas," said Professor McCanny. "Through our spin-off company, Integrated Silicon Systems in Belfast, we have supplied 200 chip designs around the world, used in things like digital televisions and portable multimedia devices."

He is certainly ambitious for the company, which currently employs 35, saying that ISS would become a global player and will seek a NASDAQ listing within three years.

Overcoming the keyboard barrier

In the same session of the Festival of Science, Dr Peter Saraga from electronics company Phillips, said that speech- and gesture-controlled home devices were getting closer to being available. This would overcome the "keyboard barrier" to many technologies.

In the nearer future, Dr Saraga predicted computer hard disks in televisions which "in a few years will be able to record hundreds of hours of programmes.

"And perhaps when you come in and sit down, Coronation Street, which your television remembered to record for you, will start playing automatically."

Lab-on-a-chip

Finally, Professor Andreas Manz from Imperial College, London, revealed research on lab-on-a-chip designs. These can channel individual molecules around circuits into reactions or analysers and would be used in medical or environmental detectors.

The advantage of this is that reducing the scale of a reaction by 10 times increases the speed of the reaction by 100 times. Hewlett Packard announced the first commercial lab-on-a-chip this week, though this does not channel individual molecules but groups of them.

See also:

23 Jun 99 | Science/Nature
26 Jul 99 | Science/Nature
16 Jul 99 | Science/Nature
09 Aug 99 | Science/Nature
02 Sep 99 | Science/Nature
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