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Easing Graphics Integration in Electronics With Diverse Hardware Options and Expansive Software and Developer Support

Introduction

Modern electronics and electrical appliances are often judged by their design-build quality, of which a major component is the aesthetics and performance of a graphical interface [1, 2, 3]. This recent trend is influencing many electronics and appliance manufacturers to include graphical displays in their designs. However, many engineers have expertise in the electronics application area, not necessarily graphics. In addition, the processor and memory requirements for graphical displays far exceed that of non-graphical electronics. Microchip has addressed these challenges with a suite of MCUs and MPUs with integrated graphics capabilities, as well as development tools that provide drag and drop code generation for standard, and even custom, displays.

This article provides details on several key trends of electronics graphical displays, and how these trends are influencing the design considerations and challenges faced by embedded designers/developers. This article also describes how select MCUs with integrated graphics capability, alongside a robust ecosystem of software design tools with unique graphics display features, can help to lower the learning curve and complexity of developing modern graphical displays.

New Graphics Applications Pose Embedded Development Quandaries

Electronics users around the world are now familiar, and even expect, high-quality graphical interfaces for electronic appliances in the home and even industrial electronics. This is a continuing trend, likely influenced by the ubiquity of high-quality smartphone graphics and touch interfaces. Now markets where graphical interfaces were rarely seen are burgeoning with diagnostic, control, and programming display interfaces in even low-end or entry-level electronics. Higher-end electronics are all but expected to have seamless graphics and interface capability, and the performance and aesthetics of graphical displays are now a major competitive factor with virtually all electronics.

“The expectation of customers today is to have a high-performance graphical human interface,” shared Kurt Parker, Product Marketing Manager for MCU32 of Microchip. “Customers expect to see a screen that is higher resolution with responsive capacitive touch, and to basically be able to use it like they are using a smartphone. The better an OEM can match graphics and touch features to smartphone capabilities, the more they can realize higher margins for their products and increase sales. It’s a challenge to offer good graphics design, but there are clear benefits.”

However, the integration of graphics displays into new platforms is creating design and development challenges for professionals who may not be familiar with such complex graphical electronics. Moreover, the incorporation of a graphical display/interface also requires additional electronics and MCU capabilities. Depending on the complexity of the graphics, a device may require a much more powerful MCU with additional memory, an external graphics accelerator, external high-speed bus routing, a multi-layer PCB, additional shielding, a larger power supply, and associated external passive components. With fluctuating memory prices, effectively planning product prices and production costs for devices that require external memory is a new industry-wide challenge. 

Additionally, creating graphics objects, libraries, and establishing a software tool-chain requires a separate set of expertise and knowledge than developing the necessary device features. Often, either new graphics developer positions or expensive contrac-tors are necessary to help struggling embedded developers meet project deadlines and overcome the learning curve of working with graphic displays.

How Integrated Graphics in MCUs Tackle Graphics Challenges 

Microchip engineers have solved many of these challenges with several of the latest families of MCUs. Many Microchip 16-bit and 32-bit MCUs include integrated graphics display hardware, such as large integrated Flash memory, sizable integrated DRAM, a variety of graphical accelerators, and other graphics enabling features. The large amounts of memory needed for modern graphical displays must be large enough to accommodate each pixel of the screen (and often much more when display features like overlays and transparent are included) and allow for rapid read/write cycles. DDR2 is the ideal memory to drive displays for consumer, medical, and industrial applications and is integrated into several Microchip MCU families.

Using 16-bit MCUs with fully integrated graphical subsystems, which are comprised of display controllers, allows for an embedded design to directly drive displays without the need for external components, high-speed buses, or the subsequent additional PCB layers and shielding necessary to separate the high-speed digital display signals from sensitive analog electronics (see the PIC24F DA Family of MCUs). Also, Microchip’s highly integrated 32-bit MCU solutions can drive a wide range of displays, including a variety of LCDs (RGB, STN/CSTN, TFT, and some OLED). Higher-end MCUs may also include large amounts of memory to incorporate larger and more numerous integrated frame buffers for driving even higher-resolution and more complex graphics features (See PIC32MZ EF Family of MCUs). Moreover, some Microchip MCUs are also equipped with fully integrated and high-performance 2D GPUs and additional features, such as flexible timing configurations, to simplify the use of custom displays (see PIC32MZ DA Family of MCUs

For high-end graphical displays, either high-speed or high-resolution, a 32-bit MPU may be necessary. These Microchip MPUs are equipped with external memory interfaces for high-performance memories, such as LPDDR, DDR2, LPDDR2, DDR3, LPDDR3/DDR3L, and NAND (see SAMA5 Arm® Cortex®-A5 MPU Family).The deep integration, diverse peripherals, and user interface features enable their use with control panels, point-of-service (POS) terminals, and high-resolution/portable consumer devices.

Graphics and Visual Development Tools Accelerate Embedded Graphics Development 

In order to take full advantage of advanced hardware features, a developer often requires a high level of skill with embedded graphics programming and familiarity with a family of devices. Otherwise, there is typically a steep learning curve that involves many hours of trial-and-error troubleshooting. Some of this effort is dedicated to working out a reliable software toolchain and graphical resources that minimize the number of errors and provide insightful debugging. In an effort to better serve designers and developers working with embedded graphics, Microchip offers several powerful software tools with many included features geared toward embedded graphics, versatile hardware development tools, and even training to help bring novice graphical developers up to speed.

Among the many embedded graphics hardware development tools are starter kits, development boards, graphics display prototyping boards, LCD controller boards, display modules, and modular expansion boards compatible with other Microchip development boards. Many of these hardware tools enable a developer to start developing graphics applications immediately with a selection of Microchip’s leading MCU families with enhanced graphics features and peripherals. For example, the PIC32MZ Embedded Graphics Starter Kit (DM320008-C) is a graphics starter kit with external DRAM and an optional crypto version that aids with testing and development of graphics applications leveraging the PIC32MZ DA MCU family.

These hardware tools are also compatible with Microchip’s flagship software development tools, MPLAB® X Integrated Development Environment (IDE) and MPLAB Harmony, along with a drag and drop What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) visual design tool, Microchip MPLAB Harmony Graphics Composer (MHGC). The graphics composer is designed as a fully integrated component of MPLAB Harmony Configurator and enables a developer to go from ideas to a working display prototype within minutes. The MHGC tool can do this by generating code that exactly matches the drag-and-drop configuration of graphics and interactions assembled within the composer. There is also a new Display Manager plug-in that helps to accelerate prototyping with non-standard displays not supported by MPLAB Harmony, which further gives the composer compatibility with virtually any display resolution and orientation. There are also several key features of the MHGC tool, such as the Event Manager, Resource Allocation Monitor, third-party library integration, as well as an Image, Font, & String Asset Manager. These features combine to work as an acceleration tool for adept graphics developers and otherwise lowers the barrier of entry for novice graphics developers.

Along with software tools, Microchip also provides a wide range of professionally developed software libraries and code examples that are freely available to developers. Instead of a developer having to try to incorporate external graphics libraries and code, a developer can simply find relevant software libraries for the MCU family and application they are working on, and either learn from, or reuse, code examples that do much of the heavy lifting of embedded graphics development. Additionally, Microchip has partnered with a key selection of vendors of graphical hardware and tools, which makes finding compatible GUI tools, development boards, graphics design modules, and prototype quantity graphics and display components much easier than the hunt-and-peck approach. 

For those professional developers that need to overcome the embedded graphics learning curve rapidly, Microchip also offers a variety of technical training services, including live technical training, Microchip Livestreams, MASTERs Conferences, live onsite training, and a developer help section on www.justinimel.com, where there is a wealth of development tutorials and key an-swers to development questions. Many of Microchip’s professional development and training services are available in locations around the world, and for teams wanting training, Microchip’s Technical Training Engineers can develop a customized agenda and on-site training schedule for an organization. 

Conclusion

Many modern electronics markets have become saturated with graphics display technology and advanced user interfaces. Gone are the days where push-button interfaces with black-and-white LCD screens are enough for modern consumers and customers. The advent and adoption of smartphones and tablets have driven consumer expectations for electronics to have high-resolution and seamlessly operated displays, often even for electronics that previously only used simple legacy interfaces. Suddenly needing to incorporate quality displays has created a challenge for many OEMs, designers, and developers suddenly thrust into the world of embedded graphics. Fortunately, Microchip offers a host of hardware, software, third-party, and training solutions to help developers rapidly make pace with modern embedded graphics and accelerate time-to-market with graphics electronics.