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INSIGHTS

Key components: Camera performance is set in silicon

Key components: Camera performance is set in silicon
With IT leaders Apple, Google, Samsung and Xiaomi battling to dominate the connected home battlefield, 2014 has truly turned out to be the year of the smart home.

Key components are a primary factor in determining the performance of electronic and digital devices. Smart home products—especially home security cameras—are no exception. A home security camera's performance is largely determined by its three pillars: image sensor, system on chip (SoC) and networking chips.

The image sensor converts light into electrical signals. Major suppliers of CMOS sensors include Aptina, Himax Imaging, OmniVision, PixArt and SONY. The SoC contains the CPU core, codec engine, DDR DRAM memory and peripheral controllers. Major players are Ambarella, Grain Media, Hisilicon, NXP , Service & Quality Technology (SQ), Sonix, TI and VATICS. The networking chip enables Ethernet, WiFi, and power line communication (PLC) connectivity. WiFi is a must-have communication protocol for home security cameras, and major WiFi chip suppliers include MediaTek, Realtek and Qualcomm Atheros.

Manufacturers carefully balance performance and cost to deliver compelling products for each market segment, as one size fits none when it comes to smart home products. These three components alone account for more than 50 percent of bill of material (BOM) costs. To provide better price performance ratios, chip suppliers are pouring significant R&D resources to incorporate more features onto the chip. Active Asian key component providers try to further differentiate their offerings by providing total solutions rather than mere components.

For this issue's Feature segment, we asked industry insiders to shed light on market and technology development trends for home security cameras.

Market Trends: Home camera market on the rise
With IT leaders Apple, Google, Samsung and Xiaomi battling to dominate the connected home battlefield, 2014 has truly turned out to be the year of the smart home. Camera component suppliers expect the home camera market to grow rapidly over the next few years. According to them, the home camera market will see even stronger momentum in 2015, driven by cable operators, cloud service providers, and telcos.

Growing interest in the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart home applications are also two motivating forces behind the growth. Besides, Hisilicon thinks the prevalence of mobile devices and 4G networks will play a significant role in the booming market. VATICS Director of Sales Marketing Joseph Wei believes that big cloud service players like Amazon, Google and Microsoft, along with cable operators and telcos, will be pivotal in driving demand for home camera. "Internet giants and system integrators will drive the global home camera market to grow at least 50 percent in both 2014 and 2015," said Alan Hsieh, VP of Sales of Grain Media. Grain Media projects its SoC shipments to double in 2014 and 2015.

Sonix Senior Manager Roger Huang believes that improved network infrastructures will boost the smart home market, including the home camera industry. “Also, the involvement of Chinese companies like Internet giant Baidu, video surveillance solutions provider Hikvision and the telcos will push forward the industry,“ he added.

SQ Sales Manager Arthur Lee said improvements in hardware manufacturing processes and software platforms are two more driving factors for industry growth and market adoption. More advanced chip manufacturing processes reduce hardware costs, while cloud-based infrastructures and platforms simplify product development and enhance user experience.

STAYING COMPETITIVE
Having the capacity to develop intellectual property (IP) is crucial for manufacturing cameras, since it helps reduce license fees and allows for more flexible product designs, which in turn helps lower costs and boost time-to-market.

IP has become in the tech world a powerful weapon to protect key differentiators and maintain competitiveness. Hisilicon offers solutions that combine its SoCs and SDKs,including self-designed IPs. Grain Media is backed by its parent company Faraday Technology, which specializes in IP and back-end integrated design services. VATICS boasts a self-designed core-IP, which powers its domain-specific optimizations and integration, resulting in better product differentiations and improved video quality.

As a latecomer to the home camera party, Huang believes Sonix benefits from a shorter learning curve, since the first movers have already smoothed out many obstacles. Second-mover advantages include lower R&D costs and faster product delivery with minimized efforts and investments.

Forging strategic partnership is another approach. Companies like Himax Imaging keeps close relationship with leading CMOS Image Sensor (CIS) foundries to ensure product quality; it also allows them to score tailor-made services like front-end integrated circuit (IC) engineering.

Purely providing hardware is no longer a competitive core competency, so it is vital to keep close relationship with downstream customers to offer a flexible platform and accelerate product development processes, Huang added. For example, Sonix's SN98600 embeds 64MB DDR memory to reduce design complexity of substrates and avoid the affects of price fl uctuations for DDR2 memory. In addition, the Sonix SDK Build Code Environment simplifies the originally complicated SDK setup and operation process, while the modular software structure enables customers to customize their software design and setup.

CATERING TO THE CUSTOMER
In response to increasing time-to-market and time-to-volume pressures and to reduce R&D expenditure, the demand for turkey solutions is on the rise.

Grain Media and Sonix both offer turnkey solutions. Turnkey hardware and software solutions help customers expedite product design and development. Grain Media set up a support team in Shenzhen, China to provide customers with real-time technical support and customization services. To differentiate from other turnkey solutions, flexibility and compatibility are imperative. Sonix said its SoCs support multiple interfaces and functions for flexible and tailor-made solutions, which stand out among the competition.

Flexible designs and services are also noteworthy for image sensors. For the price-sensitive market, Himax Imaging offers versatile solutions leveraged by the manufacturing and supply chain experiences it gained from making image sensors for laptop computers and mobile phones. In a sense, home surveillance IP cameras have become consumer electronic devices, said Antonio Tsai, Deputy Director of Marketing Division of Himax Imaging. “We see the trend of leveraging the sensors used in mobile device for better cost and performance value. We have customers using our 1/6-inch CMOS sensor instead of 1/4-inch one, which is 30 percent more expensive. For customers who require higher resolutions, we can offer the 1/4-inch 5 Megapixel and 1/3-inch 8 Megapixel sensors used in mobile phones. Customer can develop HD/FHD video cameras that are also capable of capturing 5M or 8M still images.”

China, Korea and Taiwan suppliers dominate home camera manufacturing. These suppliers, clustered in Asia, each have their own strengths and strategies. Hsieh of Grain Media indicated that Taiwanese and Korean companies emphasize on product stability, SDK and strong local supports; aside from a few top players, most Chinese customers prefer turnkey solutions that help reduce R&D costs and shorten production time. Lee of SQ noted that China and Taiwan suppliers require the latest product features, while Japan and Korea companies put more emphasis on quality and stability.

Technology Trends: Tighter budgets, tighter integration
Video compression algorithms and CPU performance highly affect the performance of a home network camera, but chipmakers are also focusing their efforts on developing energy-efficient, small-footprint, and easy-to-manufacture platforms. Asian key component providers indicate that cross-device support is another trend. Technical support and video compression rate are also two deciding factors for SoC procurement.

Product development in the smart home industry is leaning toward tighter integration on all levels. Tight integration between devices in a system, as well as on the components level, create a better user experience, lowers manufacturing costs and shortens development cycles. The consumer network camera industry is especially market-driven and price-sensitive, so platforms and solutions that are highly integrated and reduce time-to-market are in high demand.

To meet these demands, SoC suppliers integrate codec and DDR DRAM memory onto their chips to reduce size and cost. The adoption of System-in-Package (SiP) technology simplifies the PCB design process, and enables compact and lightweight cameras.

The smart home industry is currently divided by multiple factions and wireless communication standards. Chipmakers overcome this inconvenience by designing their solutions to be more flexible. For example, Grain Media preserves interfaces and provides a SDK API to allow customers to easily add wireless connectivity. In addition, Grain Media offers network camera SoCs with comprehensive ports for customers to connect to alarm and temperature sensors, as well as Bluetooth, WiFi or ZigBee chips. Hisilicon indicated that integrating the temperature sensor, POR, RTC and audio codec directly onto the chip contributes to considerable cost reduction of engineering bill of materials (EBOM).

In addition to interfaces, support for cloud platforms is also paramount. Currently, SoCs support different cloud platforms, including MyDlink, TUTK, Tricloud, Seedonk and Danale. Besides working with third-party companies to support cloud services, companies like Sonix and SQ also develop their own cloud platforms. Sonix builds its own platform for customers who are particularly concerned about security.

To ensure product stability, 40nm manufacturing processes and power management technology is widely used to reduce power consumption and operating temperatures for SoCs. Grain Media indicated that the design helps customers simplify thermal design, thus reducing design costs. Hisilicon thinks the SoCs manufactured by 40LP process is an effective power-saving solution. SoCs supporting voltage adjustment SVB and Dynamic Voltage and Frequency Scaling (DVFS) technologies feature low power consumption.

CMOS image sensors edge out CCD counterparts with lower cost and lower power consumption. Containing all the logics needed for cameras, CMOS sensors enable a small form factor that the typical home network camera requires. 1/4-inch is the mainstream size for home security cameras. Integration can also be an important trend for CMOS image sensors. Himax Imaging offers a 1/4-inch 1.3-Megapixel SoC that combines the CMOS image sensor with an ISP.

 

QUALITY AND SUPPORTABILITY MATTER
For most home network camera makers, product stability and image quality matter more than cost. Stable wireless data transmission, low power consumption and noise reduction are highly emphasized.

Tony Ho, Marketing Manager at Mars Semiconductor, indicated that 2.4GHz FHSS features stronger anti-interference transmission and longer transmission distances than WiFi technology. However, ubiquitous support of WiFi by mobile devices has made the technology the de facto standard for wireless data transmission, which is a problem because WiFi chips are infamously power hungry. MediaTek recently released its MT7688 chip, a WiFi SoC that integrates MIPS24KEc/580MHz CPU, 256MB DDR1/2 RAM and AES128/256 encryption engine, enabling it to power more complicated and data-intensive smart home appliances like network cameras and home surveillance systems. The Linux-based WiFi SoC supports 802.11n, and the chipmaker claims the chip consumes just 60 percent of energy compared to its predecessor. The Linux-based design provides the SoC with a comprehensive protocol stack that allows rapid development of applications.

Low-light performance is important for a security camera and is decided by quality of the image sensor. However, some low-cost solutions do not perform well under low-light conditions and need to be compensated by LED bulbs. WDR can be a value-added feature for home security cameras. Himax Imaging boasts high performance in low-light conditions and is set to release in 2015 a new image senor that emphasizes WDR and low-light performance for both automotive and home security cameras.

Advanced manufacturing processes help improve quality, too. SiP packaging is used to reduce noise. For example, Grain Media uses SiP packaging to embed DDR DRAM memory that helps reduce noise. Also, its network camera SoC supports various CMOS image sensors with MIPI, HiSpi and sub-LVDS interfaces that help to increase energy efficiency and reduce noise.

BGA soldering is another widely used packaging method that simplifies system design and reduces the PCB size. Sonix Senior Manager Roger Huang says LQFP hand-soldering is another common manufacturing process.

Visual performance is also significant. To ensure stable ISP performance, Sonix built an internal lab to adjust for best performance under different scenes, such as low-light environments. The image processing algorithm is decisive for image quality; Hisilicon has a team that assesses the performance of video capture, encoding, decoding and display features for its solutions.

Huang added that both hardware and software improvements are important to maintain reliable product quality. Regarding software stability, Sonix utilizes Hudson Continuous Integration system as the auto-build system for Software Development Kit (SDK) testing.

H.265 TO PREVAIL IN 2017
High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), also known as H.265, delivers the same video quality of H.264, but consumes just half the bandwidth. Professional surveillance cameras will support it initially, but it will eventually trickle down to consumer-grade products in the coming years.

Despite the fact that no home camera makers plan to offer network cameras supporting H.265 this year, Asian chipmakers think it is only a matter of time before it becomes widely adopted; some new smartphones and tablets already tout H.265 support. For example, beginning this year, MTK will make smartphone and tablet SoCs that support the new video format. Hisilicon stated that the support by smart home end products and platforms is a major indicator for the new video format's pervasiveness. Alan Hsieh, VP of Sales of Grain Media, thinks home cameras will begin to support H.265 when 1080P becomes the standard resolution for smartphones and tablets; newer devices will need to support H.265 to reduce bandwidth consumption for such high resolutions. Hisilicon predicts the first home cameras supporting H.265 standard will be available in 2016 and become mainstream in 2017. SQ also agreed with this timeframe.



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