Firewire challenges the frame-grabber market

In the 1980s, Apple Computer (Cupertino, CA) developed Firewire, a serial interface that interconnects computer peripherals, storage systems, and consumer electronics. Standardized by the IEEE as 1394, the interfaces currently support data rates of 12.5, 25, and 50 Mbytes/s, with future plans by the 1394 Trade Association for 100, 200, and 400 Mbytes/s. Currently, solid-state camera manufacturers are using this interface as a way to replace frame grabbers and reduce costs in machine-vision syste

Firewire challenges the frame-grabber market

Andy Wilson Editor at Large

andyw@pennwell.com

In the 1980s, Apple Computer (Cupertino, CA) developed Firewire, a serial interface that interconnects computer peripherals, storage systems, and consumer electronics. Standardized by the IEEE as 1394, the interfaces currently support data rates of 12.5, 25, and 50 Mbytes/s, with future plans by the 1394 Trade Association for 100, 200, and 400 Mbytes/s. Currently, solid-state camera manufacturers are using this interface as a way to replace frame grabbers and reduce costs in machine-vision system designs. "Although 1998 was to see the 1394 Standard integrated into the PC`s core logic chip set," says Pierantonio Boriero, product line manager with Matrox Imaging (Dorval, Quebec, Canada), "it is currently being implemented using 1394-to-PCI bus interface cards."

For developers, the replacement of traditional frame grabbers in some imaging applications by 1394 interface cards will simplify and reduce the cost of vision systems. Recently, at Vision `98 in San Jose, CA, Matrox demonstrated such a PC-based imaging system using the 1394 output from a color camera from Sony Electronics (Park Ridge, NJ). With a TSBK PCI evaluation board from Texas Instruments (Dallas, TX), data from the camera were transferred over the PCI bus at 25 Mbytes/s, and the monochrome component of this data stream was extracted and processed for two-dimensional matrix readings using the Matrox

Imaging Library.

Technology limited

As a technology demonstration, the setup shown by Matrox was impressive. But other considerations, may, for the near future, limit the technology to scientific and industrial instrumentation applications where image-processing functions do not need to be performed at high speed.

In the Matrox demonstration, for example, extraction of the monochrome component in the camera`s data stream consumed up to 25% of the processing bandwidth of the 400-MHz Pentium-based PC. Also, because of the limited FIFO buffering in 1394-to-PCI bridges, questions remain about whether such digital-camera interfaces can handle worst-case PCI bus latency. And because the 1394 specification is geared toward area-scan sensors, linescan applications will still require a frame grabber.

Despite the technological hurdles to be overcome, Unibrain (Athens, Greece) and Adaptec (Milpitas, CA) are currently fielding 1394-to-PCI interfaces. And, in 1999, Sony plans to augment its 1394 line with a 1450-kpixel monochrome and color camera series.

Adapters from Unibrain and Adaptec will allow PCs to be easily interfaced to digital cameras. And in the areas of scientific applications, such as microscopy, in which images do not need to be captured or processed at frame rates, these adapters will certainly lower the cost of imaging applications. But they will also provide competition for manufacturers of low-cost frame grabbers.

To meet these challenges, some frame-grabber manufacturers will certainly enter the Firewire adapter market, probably with less-than-$300 PCI-based half-cards. The emergence of such technology could threaten the low-end frame-grabber market. To survive, board vendors must add increased input/output, display, processing, and networking capabilities to their products and find new ways to differentiate them in what is becoming an increasingly competitive price/performance environment.

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