Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A bolt from the blue

If you were to gather together a hundred machine vision professionals and ask them if they needed another camera interface, what do you think would be the answer?

I’d guess that 90% would scream, “No way! Over my dead body!” while 1% would get goosebumps at the thought of adding another column to all those interface comparison tables. (The missing 9% would be too busy trying to reach the bar to bother answering.)

But according to “Thunderbolt interface rattles placid PC landscape,” (EE Times, March 7th, 2011) that 1% are about to get lucky: another interface is on its way.

Okay, to be slightly less alarmist, I haven’t yet heard it suggested as new interface for machine vision, but if you read the linked article carefully it does suggest that one application would be cameras. And before you rush to dismiss this as a harebrained idea to sell more Intel chips, note that Apple has signed up. Apple, you may recall, was the first computer maker to adopt Firewire, and that had quite an impact on the vision industry, so will Thunderbolt follow suit?

Well let’s review the current interface options. At the low speed end we have USB 2.0 and Firewire/1394a. Shuffling the bits along quicker is GigE Vision, which just trails CoaXPress. Faster still is CameraLink, while leading the pack is HSLink. Then there’s the dark horse, USB 3.0. We know it’s out there but it hasn’t yet made its presence felt.

So do we need Thunderbolt? Well speed-wise, it’s comparable to the fastest CoaXPress, which means we already have options. The EE Times article also suggests that cable length will be limited. So in short, we don’t need it.

But, I have a feeling we may not get a choice. If Apple is using it there has to be a strong likelihood that consumer cameras will also pick it up. (Everyone likes to sell to Apple buyers.) And once it’s in consumer products it will move across to the industrial markets. In short, by 2013 we could be seeing Thunderbolt-based machine vision cameras.

Or it might just die quietly, unnoticed by the majority.

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