Tuesday, October 4, 2011

HotChips 2011 - A Delayed Trip Report

I know, it’s been a little over a month since this year’s edition of the conference concluded, but better late than never! It was my first ever trip to HotChips, and I thought I should share some things I found interesting. I’ll keep away from regurgitating stuff from the technical talks since the tech-press has likely covered all of those in sufficient detail.

1. This is clearly an industry-oriented conference. There were hardly any professors around, and very few grad students. As a result, perhaps, there was almost nobody hanging out in the hallways or break areas during the actual talks, people were actually inside the auditorium!

2. It seemed like the entire architecture/circuits community from every tech shop in the Bay Area was in attendance. If you’re going to be on the job market soon, it’s a great place to network!

3. I enjoyed the keynote talk from ARM. It was interesting to think about smartphones (with ARM chips inside, of course) in the context of the developing world -- at price points in the $100-200 range, they are not a supplementary device like in the US, but the main conduit for people who normally couldn’t afford a $600 laptop to get on the internet. Definitely sounds like there’s huge potential for this form factor going forward.

Another interesting tidbit from this talk was a comparison between the energy densities of a typical smartphone battery and a bar of chocolate -- 4.5 kCal in 30g vs. 255 kCal in 49g! Lot of work to do to improve battery technology, obviously.

4. While on the subject of ARM, comparisons to Intel and discussions on who was “winning” were everywhere, from the panel discussion in the evening to one of the pre-defined “lunch table discussion topics”. Needless to say, there was nothing conclusive one way or the other :)

5. I finally got to touch a real, working prototype of Micron’s Hybrid Memory Cube (see Rajeev’s post here). I know, it’s of little practical value to see the die-stack, but it was cool nonetheless :) The talk was pretty interesting too, the first to release some technical information I think. It appears to be a complete rethinking of DRAM, with a novel protocol, novel interconnect topologies, etc.

6. I also really enjoyed the talk from the Kinect folks. I’ve seen it in action, and it was amazing to understand the complex design behind making everything work, especially since a lot of the challenges were outside my typical areas of interest -- mechanical design, aesthetics, reliability, processing images with low lighting, varying clothes, people of different sizes.. fascinating! There was also an aspect of “approachability” in the talk that I think is becoming increasingly common in the tech world -- basically *hide* the technology from the end user, making everything work “magically”. This makes people more likely to actually try these things. As a technologist, I understand the logic, but am not sure I like it very much -- engineers spend countless hours fixing a million corner cases, and I think there should be some way the common public understands at least the severity of these complexities and appreciates how hard it is to make things work! It’s like the common saying that Moore’s “Law” gives you increasing number of transistors every year -- it doesn’t, engineers do!

7. Finally, one really awesome event was a robot on stage! It was introduced by the folks from Willow Garage -- controlled from a simple Android app. It moved to the center of the stage from the wings, gave the speaker a high-five, and showed off a few tricks. There were also videos in the talk of it playing pool, bringing beer from a fridge (brand of your choice!), and a bunch of other cool things. Very fancy :) Waiting for my own personal assistant!

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