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Putting A Concert Hall On A Chip


Science & Technology

PUTTING A CONCERT HALL ON A CHIP

Anthony M. Agnello's favorite concert seat is front and center at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. He doesn't get there often, however, so the 42-year-old musician-turned-entrepreneur has brought the auditorium home--by outfitting his stereo with a black box containing a digital signal processor chip. The chip manipulates the digital codes on compact disks the way a computer massages data. By inserting delays and echoes into the music, it can recreate the "acoustic signature" of up to 99 concert halls. So the strains of Yo Yo Ma's cello sound just as sweet at Agnello's home as they do from his Weill Hall perch.

Once considered exotic, DSP is bursting out all over. Among its hot markets are videophones and multimedia computers that handle video and sound plus data. Agnello's office PC at Ariel Corp., the Highland Park (N.J.) computer company he founded, produces voice messages from electronic mail sent by anyone with a similarly equipped PC. And cellular phonemakers are designing the chips into upscale phones due this summer. At two chips per phone, Motorola Inc. says its DSP sales will jump 50% this year, to about $70 million.

As recently as 1988, DSP chips weren't feasible for such uses. They cost $500 and up and were hard to program. Since then, better chip design and production improvements have cut prices to as low as $3. And computerized techniques have made programming a relative snap. So now, contenders are mounting the first serious challenge to Texas Instruments Inc., the market leader. Motorola, AT&T Microelectronics, Analog Devices, Intel, and others are after TI's 57% market share in programmable DSPs, the fastest-growing and most lucrative part of the DSP market. These chips--like the one in Agnello's stereo--can do multiple chores or even be reprogrammed on the fly. Their sales should jump 39% this year, to $548 million, according to Forward Concepts Co., a market researcher in Tempe, Ariz.

DSP chips are in vogue because of their speed. They are designed specifically to transform such sensory signals as sounds and pressures from an analog wave into a stream of digital bits. And they do it without the microsecond delays ordinary microprocessors need. A good illustration comes from Detroit, where engineers are working on "active suspension" systems. Say a car hits a bump at 55 miles per hour. Before the tire finishes rebounding from the bump, a DSP chip gauges the force of the impact and lifts the wheel to minimize bounce, then tweaks the shocks to absorb more of the remaining jolt.

In the past, such swiftness required the software to be burned into the chip, restricting each DSP design to one, large-volume use. These "hardwired" DSPs precisely regulate the spin of computer disk drives, for example, and process the signals inside modems. Such jobs still account for two-thirds of the DSP market, estimated at $1.4 billion this year. NEC Corp., Fujitsu Ltd., and other Japanese chipmakers hold about half that business. But they don't sell many programmable designs, since U.S. companies pioneered DSP algorithms, or mathematical formulas, and the programming tools needed for high-performance DSP software. The upshot: Forward Concepts says the U.S. has 90% of world sales of programmable DSPs.

ANSWERING MACHINES. These chips do a growing number of jobs. Acer America Inc. in San Jose, Calif., is bringing out PCs with DSP chips that can be programmed to turn text into voice mail, do fax transmissions, function as digital answering machines, or act as connections to local-area networks--all for about today's cost of an ordinary modem. Since many PCs already are bought with modems, the rest of these functions will be "essentially free," says Frederick Kiremidjian, vice-president for engineering at Acer. If video becomes part of personal computing, Acer's machines will handle that, too. DSP-outfitted PCs "are where the market is headed," adds Kiremidjian.

Cellular-phone companies see lots of DSPs in the future, too. With digital signal processing, 6 to 20 times as many calls can be routed over cellular channels. The chips pack the pauses during phone conversations with digital snippets from other calls. Ericsson GE Mobile Communications Inc.'s latest phones contain two TI programmable DSPs to convert, compress, and transmit voice sounds. The digitized signals also guard against eavesdropping and produce crisper sound, similar to the difference between LP records and compact disks.

At $600 to $1,000 each, digital cellular phones cost only slightly more than the best analog models. So cellular companies such as Southwestern Bell Corp. and McCaw Cellular Communications Inc. have ordered thousands of digital units for delivery starting this summer, says William R. Osborn, Ericsson GE's manager of subscriber equipment development. And Europe's telecom companies are pushing toward an integrated digital-cellular network.

NOISES OFF. DSP chips also are at the heart of more versatile, "tapeless" answering machines. Messages stored on chips can be played back at any speed without distorting the speaker's voice, so recordings can be revved up for impatient listeners or slowed for transcribers. DSP speed also figures prominently in American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s new VideoPhone 2500, which transforms and compresses millions of pieces of video data per second to squeeze picture transmissions onto phone lines. Coming next to video DSP: sharper screens, culminating in high-definition TV.

DSP may remake other products, too. Active Noise & Vibration Technologies Inc. in Phoenix is working with Italy's Fiat to build a muffler-on-a-chip for cars. And Noise Cancellation Technologies in Stamford, Conn., hopes to test its electronic muffler this year on a tour bus at Walt Disney World. Both use DSP to analyze the characteristics of engine noise and other irksome sounds, such as the whir of a window air conditioner, then generate mirror-image sound waves that wipe out the original noise waves.

Can anything slow DSP? Experts say a few of today's applications may be usurped by ultrafast reduced instruction-set computing (RISC) chips, the kind that power workstations. Even so, says John A. Morse, a senior engineering manager at Digital Equipment Corp., there will be plenty of jobs RISC can't do. So one day, the DSP chip bringing Anthony Agnello the sound of Weill Hall may also deliver an image of Yo Yo Ma on stage.Gary McWilliams in Boston


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