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All the world's a computer

Posted: 05 Sep 2005     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:computer  rfid 

Ken Sakamura has been talking pervasive computing since before the term was invented. The University of Tokyo professor, easily the most famous computer architect in Japan, first proposed the idea of networked, ubiquitous computing back in 1984, when he devised the open architecture known as TRON (The Real-time Operating System Nucleus). Since then, Sakamura has led the TRON project and several spin-offs in developing core technologies for an environment in which every object incorporates a computer and is linked to a network. The T-Engine Forum, for example, was established in 2002 to promote embedded development around TRON. A year later came the Ubiquitous ID Center, which aims to promulgate RFID technology around Sakamura's "ucode." Designed as the infrastructure for ubiquitous computing, ucode can tag anything from a can of peas on a supermarket shelf to the Empire State Building with its own unique code.

When he met recently with EE Times, Sakamura showed off his latest invention-the Micro Ubiquitous Communicator, a personal identification device the size of a matchbox that works as a door key, electronic money and PC authentication.

EE Times: What led you to develop TRON in the 1980s?

Ken Sakamura: At that time, the United States was advanced in information systems, such as PCs and workstations, and Japan's forte was consumer electronics. So I was interested in embedded computing for consumer products. I was quite sure that in the future, software would define all the functions of consumer electronics products. I thought it was mandatory to prepare an operating system that would enable the development of high-performance software with high efficiency.

Since the operating system would be the infrastructure for embedded systems, it should be open, so that people could share it. It is not good for something that works as an infrastructure to belong to someone. Based on this conviction, I've been working on building an open platform for embedded systems for about 20 years.

As a research assistant at the graduate school of the University of Tokyo at that time, I wanted to work for many people's benefit, not for a specific company. So TRON was not created to make money; its greatest strength is that it's open and free of charge.

EET: You are well-known in Japan, but not so much in the United States.

Sakamura: There is a difference in industry structure between Japan and the United States. In Japan, embedded systems are used in small devices such as mobile phones, digital still cameras or engine controls for automobiles. In such fields, Japan has been a dominating power. The United States has less power in such fields. Instead, it is quite active in larger systems, like PCs and workstations and routers.

Recently, however, small systems like mobile phones and car navigation systems are taking on rich functions that were available only on large-scale computers before. Also, people who were working on large systems are now interested in smaller ones, such as mobile or wearable systems. (Sakamura holds up the Micro Ubiquitous Communicator.) I expect that we will find common ground.

EET: The TRON effort now comprises ITRON for embedded systems, JTRON for Java implementations, BTRON for larger systems like PCs and PDAs, and CTRON for communications systems. Is this because of TRON's scalability?

Sakamura: Yes. It is scalable. Like Linux, TRON can be implemented in small systems to large systems. Because TRON is an open architecture, engineers can try whatever they want with it. Some engineers may have an interest in adapting TRON to larger systems, like servers.

If an operating system is an open architecture and free, its user community expands explosively and the system improves with feedback. That is impressive power. It is a big benefit with the open architecture.

TRON's base is "hard" real-time [embedded systems]. It is used in mobile phones. It controls Toyota's car engines. It enables high-speed shutters in digital still cameras.

EET: Has ITRON been widely accepted for embedded systems?

Sakamura: ITRON has become the actual infrastructure of Japan's electronics industry. More than 60 percent of embedded systems that employ a microprocessor use the TRON operating system. Some of the remaining systems do not have an OS, or they use a proprietary operating system that, often, is based on ITRON. About 80 percent of operating systems used in embedded systems [in Japan] are ITRON. Since ITRON is free, it does not yield a royalty. So I did not become a rich man [through TRON].

EET: Where does the T-Kernel fit in?

Sakamura: T-Kernel is the latest version of TRON, with enhanced networking capability. The base is the same as ITRON, but it was upgraded to cope with the improvements in the networking environment. Eventually all embedded microprocessors will have network accessibility. For example, a remote controller for a TV set will have a microcontroller equipped with the TRON operating system connect to the network, and it will be able to control the operation of other devices, such as turning lights and air conditioners-as well as the TV set-on and off.

To connect a device to a network, security is most important. If it is not secure enough, the system is not practically usable. Thus, we had to establish a new platform with the highest-level security, which conventional embedded operating systems did not have.

EET: What about the T-Engine?

Sakamura: In embedded-system development, co-development of hardware and software is another challenge. Software development for a PC is different, because the hardware is fixed and reliable. In an embedded system, the hardware changes during the development process. Consequently, it becomes difficult to determine on which side, hardware or software, each bug occurs.

To improve the situation, we built the new T-Engine platform, in which standardized hardware boards are available. Using the boards, hardware and software can be co-developed.

EET: What about CPU issues?

Sakamura: Another issue [in embedded development] is that the embedded microprocessor may change. In terms of cost and performance, the core of a system-on-chip LSI may be replaced with some other core. Even if the core is changed, design engineers want to use the peripheral logic as is. But different microprocessors have different bus systems.

With the cooperation of Altera and Xilinx, both of which are members of the T-Engine Forum, the forum has opened logic on FPGAs that absorbs the bus differences of various microcontrollers. With this interface logic, even if the core chip is changed, software developed on the T-Engine board can be used with the new core. The interface logic supports most processors [now], and we are also going to add new processors. Consequently, software developed in the T-Engine development environment becomes core-chip-free after recompilation.

EET: Chip makers are also proposing system-on-chip development platforms. Does T-Engine compete with them?

Sakamura: There can be many choices. It is free for engineers to use or not use TRON. If they find a better development platform, they can use it. I believe that TRON will be the winner in the end. I want to bring the advantages of openness seen in PCs and in the Internet to the embedded world. If we can gather intelligence in the world, imagine what we can do. People without the "open" idea in the networking era will no longer be able to survive in the embedded-systems world. The new era has come. People who don't see it cannot continue in the embedded business.

EET: What is the mission of the Ubiquitous ID Center, and how does it differ from EPCGlobal, which is involved in RFID standardization?

Sakamura: We believe there should be large varieties of RFID services, so the Ubiquitous ID Center will authorize various RFID specifications as standard "ucode" tags, insofar as the RFID format is open. It is not practical to set one standard format and to push costs down by merit of scale, which is what EPCGlobal seems to be aiming at.

Since this technology is still under development, we should collaborate where we can. If EPCGlobal's RFID is made open when it is completed, we are going to authorize it [under Ubiquitous ID]. However, EPCGlobal seems to focus on supply chain management applications like the model that Wal-Mart adopted. Our target is not only supply chain management, but also safety and security, such as medication control and food traceability.

We also intend to embed chips in cities-that is, to embed ucode tags in roads and buildings to establish a location information system. The tags provide location information to users of personal-navigation systems, or help handicapped people with the information in a ubiquitous environment. It seems difficult to realize these applications using only EPCGlobal's RFID.

The T-Engine Forum and the Ubiquitous ID Center are proceeding overseas together. Branch offices have already been opened in Beijing and Shanghai in China, and in Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Our activity has been focused in Asia, but now it is expanding to Europe. We are planning to expand our activity to the United States next year.

EET: Is the Ubiquitous Communicator a good demonstrator for the ucode?

Sakamura: Yes, it shows people what the ucode system can do. This unit charges automatically via a USB connection and consumes little power, so users would not feel that it is battery-operated. Even in such a small configuration, it is equipped with a display and an antenna for communication. It would be difficult to realize such a small unit with embedded Linux. TRON's forte is [low power consumption, resulting in] long operation with a battery. It can realize mobile phones with 1,000-hour standby time.

My Ubiquitous Communicator opens the door. But collaboration is essential. Companies such as IBM, Oracle, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems are [among the roughly 500] members of the T-Engine Forum. If the advantageous technologies of U.S. companies and our own microtechnologies shake hands, we can realize a true pervasive society in which everybody can access information any time, everywhere.

Yoshiko Hara

EE Times





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