Reprogrammable Chip Breakthrough Could Mean Instant Gadget Hardware Upgrades

old chip pile photo

A pile of outdated chips like this could disappear with new reprogrammable chip technology; Photo by jurvetson via Flickr CC

A major issue with gadgets is that the hardware is often outdated as soon as a device rolls onto store shelves. It's especially true in the case of items like cell phones and other handhelds that receive constant upgrades. It's one of the reasons why we like design philosophies like that of Dominic Muren, where every component is upgradable. But what if hardware could be upgraded instantly, like how software is upgraded? That just might be possible thanks to new chip technology from Tabula. Tabulba is a start-up company with a brilliant idea. Its researchers have rearranged how a single-layer chip functions so that is acts like a programmable chip, making instant hardware upgrades for consumer electronics like televisions possible.

Technology Review reports that the new chips are cheaper and more powerful versions of field programmable gate array (FPGA) chips that are used in large, expensive devices like CT scanners or in prototypes of new devices. In fact, Tabula's chip is five times cheaper to manufacture, provides twice the density of logic and four times the performance of FPGAs. The trick to improving speed and versatility was to make a single-layer chip act as if it is stacked:

"Imagine you walked into the elevator in a building and then walked back out, and that I rearranged the furniture quickly while you were in there," says Teig. "You would have no way to tell you weren't on a different floor." Tabula's chips perform the same trick on the data they process, cycling between up to eight different layouts at up to 1.6 billion times per second (1.6 Gigahertz). Signals on the chip encounter those different designs in turn, as if they were hopping up a level onto a different chip entirely. "From its behavior, our [design] is indistinguishable from a stack of chips," says Teig, who calls the virtual chip layers "folds."

The result of such technology means consumer electronics that can receive chip hardware upgrades in the same way our handheld devices get software upgrades pushed through periodically. Instead of coming out with a whole new digital camera or television, etc, a manufacturer could push through a chip upgrade and thus offer more features.

It is exciting to imagine the possibilities of combining such technology with potential designs like that of the Bloom laptop, which can be taken apart by the user, without tools, in just seconds for upgrading or repairing parts. It may be (read: definitely is) too optimistic, but perhaps we may one day soon start to move away from planned obsolescence in consumer electronics, and the new "best thing" is how easily upgradable a device can be.

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More on Upgrading Electronics
TED Talk: Making Gadgets More Like Guts, Skin and Skeletons
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