It's called FireWire by Apple and i.Link by Sony, which has licensed this name to several other companies. But perhaps it's only appropriate that this year—the start of a new millenium—is when i.Link will really begin to come of age. That's also why I have come to think of 2000 as the year of IEEE 1394.
IEEE 1394 began in the late 1980s as a digital technology designed to satisfy the increasing demand for communications bandwidth for video. The 1394 standard offers bidirectional, peer-to-peer transfer of high-volume digital data at speeds of up to 400 Mbit/s, with data-transfer speeds expected to reach 800 Mbit/s by 2001.
Simplifying the systems
IEEE 1394 was designed to reduce the connectors and "cable spaghetti" needed to connect complex systems such as home-entertainment component systems or complex factory-automation cells. Simple one-cable connectivity has become necessary because of miniaturization and increasing device functionality as ports have reduced in size and number.
IEEE 1394 offers distributed, peer-to-peer connectivity. In robotic inspection systems, peer-to-peer communication enables vision systems and mechanical hands to talk directly to each other. In this instance, the vision system instructs the robotic hands to pick up certain objects for close inspection. Miscommunication or slow communication could result in missing or damaging the object—or the robot. High-speed, low-cost connectivity prompted Sony to become a strong proponent of i.Link back in the early 1990s.
Today, the high-performance 1394 serial bus is incorporated into many consumer digital products, and Sony has become the only vendor selling a range of i.Link color and mono cameras for a variety of industrial and scientific imaging applications. Increasingly, Sony sees machine vision and scientific customers moving to 1394 for three reasons:
- They want their next system to be digital. 1394 progressive-scan CCD cameras can capture an entire image event within the camera, use on-board intelligence to enhance the image, and then move the image to other parts of the network without having to assemble the image on a frame-grabber board. Progressive-scan CCD cameras also eliminate motion artifacts, which improves image processing.
- They want to minimize initial and ongoing cabling costs. In even moderately complex machine-vision systems, the cabling and its maintenance are expensive. Most cables run back to a computer or rack of boards, and most of these cables have a number of conductors with different connectors and lengths. If there is a problem, the user has to find the cable and fix or replace it. Having a single 1394 network using common cables running through the system will eliminate much of that hassle and cost.
- They want to use notebook computers to run their systems. Where central processing is required, the notebook computer is a cost-effective way to deliver computer, display, and keyboard. Combining the portability of a notebook with a single 1394 network cable will simplify the system, while giving it a smaller footprint and greater flexibility.
Technology comes of age
Until now, the reservations about 1394 have generally related to cost, shorter cabling links, and a lack of software and support. Analog cameras may cost less than their digital counterparts, and there is a wider selection of analog cameras. And, analog video cables allow longer cabling runs to the frame grabber. However, as digital technology becomes more prevalent, more models are being introduced. Costs drop. And this year, in particular, software and support have come of age.
Until recently, frame-grabber manufacturers controlled the development of software for video cameras. Because digital cameras largely bypass the use of frame-grabber boards, the manufacturers were reluctant to develop software that would force them to compete with themselves. Lack of commercial-grade software meant off-the-shelf solutions were few, and customized solutions were the province of a few consultants who understood them.
Recently, the Matrox Imaging (Montreal, Canada) software-development library (MIL) adopted 1394 for its IEEE 1394-to-PCI adapter board, Meteor-II/1394, and stand-alone imaging system—4Sight. MIL makes it simple for the user to switch between analog and digital using the same machine-vision software tools. National Instruments (Austin, TX) introduced 1394 support within LabVIEW for vision, motion control, and data acquisition, which makes the choice of analog or digital cameras transparent to the user and allows a complete system to be built around 1394.
With Matrox Imaging and National Instruments leading the way, and with Windows 2000 offering 1394 support, frame-grabber manufacturers are now rushing to develop 1394 software. This year, we'll see a proliferation of off-the-shelf i.Link solutions. Customer understanding of 1394, more software and support, plus pent-up demand are driving the machine-vision, scientific, and inspection markets to go digital. This year, i.Link will start to achieve critical mass. By the end of 2003, it is my prediction that manufacturers will be selling more digital cameras than analog to industrial sites.
JERRY FIFE is product manager, visual imaging products, Broadcast and Professional Company, Sony Electronics Inc., One Sony Drive, Park Ridge, NJ 07656; e-mail: [email protected].