Inside Synaptics: An Eye-Opening Meeting For Me

By Rich Nass

Executive Vice President

Embedded Computing Design

October 10, 2022

Blog

Inside Synaptics: An Eye-Opening Meeting For Me

Just when you thought you had a vendor pegged for its area of expertise, you find out you were wrong, and wrong by a long shot.

For me, it was a visit to the Synaptics HQ in San Jose, CA that showed me the error of my ways. While I knew the company had a leadership position in Edge AI processors (see this Katana announcement and/or this sensor-fusion product), there is way more going on behind the curtain than I would have guessed. In fact, it’s safe to call the company an IoT company rather than a semiconductor company, based on how its offerings are structured.

Leading-Edge Auto Displays

Synaptics is far more horizontal than this “expert” was aware. For example, I partook (yes, that’s a word) in a discussion on automotive displays. The top-tier suppliers to the automotive industry are trying their hardest to help the auto makers differentiate themselves. As you know, components in this arena must work all the time, no questions asked. Although the Synaptics folks were quick to correct my syntax; it’s not just a display. It’s an HMI, or the place that the human (driver or passenger) interacts with in the vehicle, providing two-way communications. In some cases, the HMIs can effectively replace mechanical knobs in the car.

 

One feat in the automotive space is to incorporate local dimming in the displays. You do this to improve the contrast ratio of the traditional edge-lit LCD to the point that it has the same look as an OLED, but by enabling the use of lower cost and longer lasting LEDs.

AI/ML at the Edge

When it comes to AI, Synaptics is making some significant inroads. For example, by using TinyML on its processors, they can more easily push AI (or machine learning, aka ML) out to the Edge, as smaller devices can be employed. At the same time, those smaller devices could potentially be battery-powered. By being able to run on batteries, a whole new world opens up in terms of wearable devices.

While Synaptics is adding the hooks to make TinyML a reality, they know their place: they’ll let the community come up with the algorithms and continue to provide the leading-edge hardware. One area where this is true is in audio processing, where low-power, small form-factor DBM10L dual-core SoC combines a DSP with a neural processing unit (NPU) to accelerate inferencing and handle other AI functions.

In fact, a recent announcement with Imagimob, designers get access to a complete platform that enables products for Sound Event Detection (SED) applications. Specifically, the DBML10 SoC can handle the voice, audio, and sensor processing in a battery-powered Edge product, such as a smartphone, tablet, or smart-home device.

Other places you’ll see the Synaptics devices include wireless applications, where the company’s Triple Combo technology (WiFi, Bluetooth, and IEEE 802.15.14) processor, the SYN4381, pushes the envelope to WiFi 6 with data rates up to 600 Mbits/s. It's also Matter compliant, a key spec that was just introduced. In the meeting, I was told that the company’s wireless products are “best in class,” and frankly, from what I heard, it’s hard to argue that point.

 

Finally, another important component of the Synaptics portfolio, one that I’m pretty excited about, is the AR/VR arena. Why am I excited? Because I plan to do a Tear Down article on a set of VR glasses that house the Synaptics processor. Look out soon for that article.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t judge a vendor based on past history. In the semiconductor, things can change on a dime, though an acquisition or through organic growth. In the case of Synaptics, it was both. Regardless, they have managed to re-engineer themselves as an IoT company.

Richard Nass’ key responsibilities include setting the direction for all aspects of OSM’s ECD portfolio, including digital, print, and live events. Previously, Nass was the Brand Director for Design News. Prior, he led the content team for UBM’s Medical Devices Group, and all custom properties and events. Nass has been in the engineering OEM industry for more than 30 years. In prior stints, he led the Content Team at EE Times, Embedded.com, and TechOnLine. Nass holds a BSEE degree from NJIT.

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