Tag Archives: Vegard Wollan

Billions of chips, unlimited possibilities


Vegard Wollan reveals that there are now more AVR chips in the wild as there are people in the world. (Note: A loose translation from Adressa’s recent article.)


Though the slogan “Enabling Unlimited Possibilities” may not be the most modest as they come, why should it have to be? Especially when your company, whose heritage has ties to Trondheim, is at the forefront of the incredibly popular and ever-evolving IoT innovation battle.

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Vegard Wollan, AVR co-founder and VP of Atmel’s Touch Business Unit, had the chance to catch up with local Trondheim newspaper Adressa to discuss some of his team’s latest developments. One in particular, the maXTouch family of touchscreen controllers provides unprecedented hover and proximity capabilities, where a user no longer is required to touch the display, but instead triggers different functions by simply holding their finger right above it.

Just the other night, several Atmel employees in Trondheim came together to celebrate not only their commitment to the local community but an impressive milestone, namely 7,338,088,583 AVR chips. To put that figure into perspective, that is at least one MCU for each person on Earth.

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“It’s insane! We have the increasing ability to top what we’ve done previously,” Wollan says. “We have been doing this for 20 years and have never had such high production as we do now. In 1999, we thought it was giant milestone to pass 10 million. Now, we have produced 7.3 billion and create about one billion units a year.”

The figure is almost as impressive as the customer list of “little” Atmel Norway, and its tight-knit team of just under 200 employees. Wollan highlights a few of the top tier brands powered by the stalwart microcontrollers, which include some of the largest and most recognizable names out there today. Among those are Google, Microsoft, Bosch, Sony, Samsung, LG, General Motors, Ford, Jaguar and Tesla.

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“And this is just an excerpt. When we started the company in 1995, we dreamed about getting some big customers such as LG or Sony or Mercedes or what not. And now we have this list! So it’s really what we are celebrating and we are madly proud of,” Wollan adds.

Another focus as of late has been on China, and the next generation of gizmos and gadgets coming out the country where Atmel has played an integral role in their development, most notably ZTE and Xiaomi. While both of these manufacturers may not be the most globally known brands (yet), they have contributed millions of smartphones to the consumer market — many of which based on Atmel solutions.

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“Our customers in China have now launching new phones with new technology from us. We have developed a whole new edge-free design for smartphones, so you get the larger screen without the phone being bigger. The screen goes absolutely to the edge with virtual edge buttons without the buttons here. You hold such phone as a camera and phone camera turns on. And pressing your index finger on the top right hand side on, and you take a picture,” Wollan explains.

One of the coolest projects worth mentioning is a recent collaboration with global music sensation, Coldplay, who commissioned the help of the Trondheim team. Wollan goes on to laughingly reveal, “It’s a little funny that one of our engineers have been in the practice room with Coldplay to test our technology.”

Through wireless connectivity, Coldplay has been able to transform its sold-out crowds into brilliant canvas of colorful LEDs, all while providing greater engagement amongst its fans. As concertgoers enter the arena, they are given a flashing bracelet that can be remotely controlled from any PC and pulse to the rhythm of the band’s music.

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“You had to see the whole place light up in flashing, multi-colored bracelets. When we saw it from the stage, we could not believe we had managed to achieve this. It is about everyone, not just about the band and the fanatical folks at the stage, but all of us become part of the show by having a small armband.”

Wollan shares that Atmel is continuing to develop its initiative with Coldplay, but cannot go into more detail at this time. During the celebration of the company’s achievement the other night, employees were even given a chance to experience the wireless wearable devices as they waved their arms to the beat of some tunes.

Intrigued? You can tune-in to the entire segment here!

Video: Vegard Wollan reflects on life and innovation

In the final segment of my interview with AVR microcontroller creator Vegard Wollan, I asked about his background and innovation at Atmel.

In response to my question of how he views his expertise, Vegard noted that he started out as a computer architect and digital designer. It’s simple to see the ease-of-use DNA in the AVR product line when Vegard then noted that he soon saw himself as someone that could make life easy for embedded designers. I think this focus on the customer pervades all of Atmel to this day.

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Vegard Wollan reflects on his history of innovation at Atmel.

I went on to ask Vegard what he does in his spare time. His response? Exercising and boating off the beautiful, dramatic Norwegian coastline. I think physical activity is a key thing. In fact, I wish someone had warned me as a young man that engineering has an occupational hazard. You can make a good living sitting at a desk. This was less true when I was an automotive engineer, as I had to go the experimental garage and walk around Ford’s giant complex in Dearborn, Michigan. Nowadays, we all seem chained to a computer, and stuck in a chair all daylong. So, exercise and boating sounds like a great way to stay active and balance our lives a little bit!

As I pictured Vegard sailing around Norway looking at beautiful sunsets, I wondered if that was inspired him to be so innovative. He responded that the primary source of innovation at Atmel is working with a team of creative innovative people. I think this is true in most human endeavors. When I asked my dad why some restaurants had really good service, he noted that good people like to work with other good people. That is why Vegard is spot-on, and quite humble in noting that innovation comes from a team, not any single person.

Want to learn more about the backstory of AVR? You can tune-in to the entire 14-part series here.

Video: Vegard Wollan addresses Internet of Things security

In this video segment from my interview with Vegard Wollan, the co-inventor of the AVR microcontroller, we explore in detail the security problems you need to address as an embedded designer.

Let’s face it, it is obvious that security is a way of thinking. You have to assume bad people are going to try and hack your products. With the oncoming revolution in the Internet of Things, it is important you design the security within, rather than try to tack something on after an exploit.

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The co-inventor of the AVR architecture notes that security is essential in embedded systems.

The key thing you have to know is that nothing beats hardware security. This is where the security system is implemented in silicon, storing a secret key, hash algorithms and random-number generator (RNG). Atmel makes both standalone security chips and incorporates the security circuits into some of our microcontrollers including Atmel | SMART ARM-based chips used for smart energy meters. The chips are more sophisticated than a simple IP block. In fact, there are extra layers of metal in the die so that hackers cannot probe the chip without ruining it. Many of the chips also dither the supply current, so a hacker cannot infer the code it is running by observing the tiny variations in supply current as it runs.

Atmel makes symmetrical security chips, where both the chip and the microcontroller code know the secret key, and also asymmetrical security chips, which work like that public and private keys systems you might be familiar with such as PGP and RSA security. And, note that you can uses Atmel’s tiny inexpensive security chips with any microcontroller, 8-bit, 16-bit or 32-bit, including all the micros made by Atmel’s honored competitors.

Interested in more? You can watch the entire 1:1 interview with Vegard here.

Video: Vegard Wollan talks AVR and ARM low-power operation

In this segment of the series, the co-inventor of the AVR microcontroller chip talks about the famously low power that the chips consume.

I had heard that one of the clever things Atmel does to save memory power is that we turn on the memory, fetch four instruction op-codes then turn the memory off again. Now, if there is a branch in these four op-codes that change the program flow, well, we have to turn on the memory and grab another four instructions. But, you can imagine just how often that the chips are executing all for instructions, so that we get those four op codes for the power cost of one fetch.

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Vegard Wollan jokes will fellow Norwegian Andreas Eieland [off camera] about divulging the secrets to Atmel’s ultra-low power.

Vegard confirmed that Atmel does this on both the latest AVR and on our Atmel | SMART ARM-based chips. I love this clip since this is where we break the 4th wall as Vegard jokes to the crew that I am giving away too many secrets. I also confirmed that some of our ARM chips have a switching regulator controller built in. For instance, the SAM4L has one switching and one linear regulator built in. Now we don’t put any giant inductors inside the chip, you supply the external inductor, but all the control circuitry is available so you can really minimize the BOM (bill-of-materials).

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To allow single-supply operation the ARM-based SAM4L microcontroller has a switching regulator on board, you only need to supply an external inductor.

This is yet another thing that differentiates our ARM-core parts from the competition. Most engineers know how cool and revolutionary the AVR was, but we have applied all the “cool” and more to our ARM-based chips. As Vegard noted, we have many tricks and innovations to sip the lowest amount of power, and that includes having our own processes at our Colorado Springs fabrication facility.

Vegard Wollan on the AVR and ARM cores and peripherals

In the fifth video of the series, I asked the co-inventor of the AVR microcontroller about the progression of the peripherals in the various microcontrollers Atmel offers. Vegard shares that when they invented the first AVR products, the team was concerned with ease-of-use, a clean instruction set that would run C, instructions that ran in a single cycle, and good quality tools.

However, he was just as proud of the peripherals that they then developed for the XMEGA line of AVR 8-bit chips. There, he said the stress was still on low power, but also a set of peripherals that were high performance, robust, strong, effective, and that included analog and digital advanced peripherals. Additionally, Vegard stressed how the XMEGA event system would allow programmers to handle complex events and take action, all without waking up the CPU core in the part.

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Vegard Wollan becomes animated when talking about the peripherals in AVR and ARM chips offered by Atmel.

I knew this was cool for the low-power aspect, yet Vegard reminded me that it also allows you to service an interrupt faster and more deterministically — always a good thing in embedded systems. The great news for engineers is that all the cool things Atmel figured out for the XMEGA AVR also went into to the UC3, the 32-bit AVR product lines. Then, we made sure to put these same powerful and flexible peripheral systems into our ARM core-based MCUs. In addition we would add dedicated touch I/O pins and more accurate clocks and references. You can still see the AVR DNA from back in 1990 at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology where the AVR came to life.

What I really loved about Vegard was his humility. Every time I tried to give him credit for the AVR he was sure to remind me that there was a whole team that developed it. And, when I tried to point that the AVR was RISC (reduced instruction set computer) before ARM came out, he told me that he was more proud of the peripherals in all of Atmel’s chips, rather than just the core he invented for the AVR. That’s a good thing to keep in mind.

While using any ARM core will get you the instruction set and header files and open-source tools, Atmel’s ARM chips will also get these great peripherals and the event system to tie them all together, while the CPU sleeps peacefully. A recent article helped me understand Vegard’s Norwegian modesty, but I am sure glad he and his team worked on the AVR and ARM chips.

Vegard Wollan talks AVR chips and tools

While some of my earlier segments with Vegard explored the history of AVR, this video with its co-inventor addresses its product line and the tools one would use to write the firmware for the 8-bit chips.

Vegard touches on the availability of AVR chips in DIP (dual in-line) packages. These larger packages are loved by Makers and hobbyists since they are easy to prototype with. You can solder to the pins without a microscope and it is easy to make changes. They are also well-suited to installing in sockets, so you can replace them, or yank them out and program them in a separate programmer board.

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Atmel still makes parts in the older DIP package, loved by hobbyists and Makers alike.

In the interview, Vegard refers to the ball grid array, commonly referred to as BGA by us acronym-loving tech people. BGAs are extremely small, just a little bigger than the silicon die itself. They also tend to transfer heat out of the die effectively, but that is rarely a factor in AVR chips since they are so low power. The headache with BGA chips is that you need an IR reflow oven to solder them on a board. Now, my buddy Wayne Yamaguchi has figured out a toaster oven will get the job done, just don’t toast any bread in it after you put a lead-soldered board into it.

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Atmel parts in BGA packages are very small, but take special inspection and rework equipment.

The real headaches with BGA packages are rework and inspection. To replace the chip, you would need a camera mounted hot-air rework station from Metal/OKI; in order to make sure it is soldered correctly would require an X-ray machine (no, I am not kidding) to see that all the balls have sweated onto the pads under the chip. It helps to use gold-immersion finished circuit boards since they tend to be flatter than HASL (hot air solder-leveled) boards. However, if you are making some leading-edge tiny consumer product, all these prototyping and QC hassles are well worth it to get the smallest size possible.

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To remove and resolder a BGA on your circuit board, you need to use a high-dollar camera equipped hot-air station like the Metcal Scorpion from Oki.

Vegard confirmed that Atmel uses the AVR 32-bit UC3 core in our touch controllers and mouse controller products. As you will see in the video above, we then went on to discuss Atmel’s legacy of providing really inexpensive demo boards and development tools.

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Vegard Wollan smiles with pride as I show him an old demo board I used in 1999.

I also dragged out the actual AVR ICE 200 in-circuit emulator (ICE) I used in 1998, to design a point-of-sale terminal (note I misspeak in the video, calling it an STK200). The remarkable thing was this system would emulate an AVR chip in-circuit, and it only cost 200 dollars, back in an era when Intel Blue-Box 8051 systems were 50 grand.

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Vegard Wollan really beams as I describe the 200-dollar Atmel AVR ICE 200, that got my startup off to a fast start in 2001.

To conclude the segment, Vegard Wollan shares how the Atmel Studio 6 integrated development environment is a high-quality software tool to develop your application, and works with AVR 8- and 32-bit parts as well as Atmel ARM-core microcontroller chips. When you add Atmel Gallery, Atmel Spaces, and the Atmel Software Framework (ASF), Atmel Studio becomes an integrated development platform (IDP). And, don’t forget you can get Atmel demo hardware through our distributors or the Atmel Store.

 

Vegard Wollan on AVR Freaks and early data books

In the fourth episode of my interview with Vegard Wollan, the co-inventor of the AVR MCU alluded to the passionate following that Atmel and its 8-bit chip have developed.


I can personally attest to this. When one of my pals said he was “going off the reservation” to solve an AVR problem, I thought he meant he was going to use a certain competitor’s microcontroller. Turns out, he was simply referring that he was headed to Atmel’s AVR Freaks forum to get an answer, rather than put in a support ticket or use our knowledge base. What delighted me was when he said, “I would rather jump off a bridge than use a [competitor] part.” Simple as that.

Atmel recently rolled out a redesigned site for the die-hard community, which incorporates both feedback and testing provided by the users themselves. Aside from the new look, the site will utilize a much more robust infrastructure and web technologies to provide users with an enhanced experience. (For those seeking an avid community built around the Atmel | SMART ARM-based products, you can check out AT91.com.)

What I loved about the interview is how Vegard explained it was his college experience that convinced him of the value of a strong user community. We all remember those 3:00am dorm sessions where we would discuss the meaning of life. Vegard noted that Atmel would provide servers and gifts and anything else we could do to support the user community.

The co-inventor also brought along a few copies of the first AVR data book. I was amused to see this post on the AVR Freaks forum, by a user that did not know what a “data book” was. Boy, that makes me feel old! See sonny, back when the Earth was still cooling and dinosaurs roamed the fields, engineers didn’t do everything at their fingertip on the intertube. Companies, much like Atmel, would take all their datasheets and bind them up in this thing called a printed book. I have to admit, it was a great day when I tossed my 500 pounds of databooks in the dumpster. Bless the Internet, it made life so much better.

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Vegard Wollan holds up the draft version of the May 1995 AVR databook.

Of course, that draft was only a checkplot for the real book. The video also shows Vegard holding up the final version of the AVR databook that us old-timers so frequently depended on. How we would have killed for the modern microcontroller selector guide!

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Here, Vegard Wollan holds up the actual printed data book from May 1995, the first release of the famous AVR microcontroller to the world. They had to make some changes so this databook has parts listed that Atmel never actually produced, and was missing some other parts. Those 4-months printed book lead times were a killer for everybody.

So there you have it, folks. With billions of chips in the wild, a following of over 290,000 AVR Freaks and nearly 100,000 forum posts around the topic annually, it’s safe to say we’ve come a long way since the earliest days of the 8-bit microcontroller. If you’re not already a member of the growing AVR Freaks community, be sure to head on over to the newly-updated site and join today!