The Ins and Outs of Embedded Systems

Embedded systems—it sounds like a rather catchy phrase to toss around the lunchroom. “Why, yes!” says Michelle. “Our new platform does include an embedded system.” What exactly is an embedded system and what does it have to do with your casino floor?

Quite simply, an embedded system is a specially designed computerized system built to perform one or more specialized functions. These systems are embedded into a larger device and become an integral part of the complete unit. They will typically have a very narrow focus and may work with other embedded systems.

An embedded system will typically include a variety of components on a circuit board, along with other supporting items such as motors, LED displays, switches, etc. The entire system will be based on some form of processing chip. This chip is a tiny computer that can execute pre-programmed instructions and interface with external devices. The system will contain a small amount of memory and the operating instructions, or programming, that were written for the specific application. In a sense, you can think of it as a very small, very specialized computer. It may also be designed for field updates. Many bill validators, printers and routers can be “flash updated” to install new programming software without having to remove the device. The new instructions can be downloaded onto a computer via e-mail or the Internet and then installed through a cable or wireless connection to the processor.

Let’s consider the humble automobile as a good example for our study. As you might suspect, we’ll progress to slot machines shortly. In the olden days, headlights were a simple addition to an automobile. The lights were wired into a switch on the dashboard through a fuse and then to the battery. If you pulled out the switch, an electrical contact was made and the headlights came on. If you forgot to turn them off when you left the car, they would automatically turn themselves off once the battery was completely drained.

This simple circuit was easy to diagnose and repair: either the switch malfunctioned, the wiring corroded, the fuse blew or, more commonly, the filament in the bulb burnt out. Any backyard mechanic could repair the headlights quite easily and without a service manual or any specialized training.

When microprocessors and microcontrollers made their way into the products we use, headlights became much more complicated. Today’s vehicles have a switch and fuse, but they are individually controlled and are turned on and off through an embedded system. Many have a touch switch that only makes momentary contact to signal the processor and doesn’t actually conduct the electricity directly to the headlights.

Apart from bragging rights, why would we need this extra level of technology? What advantages could this possibly bring? And what disadvantages could it possibly have?

The headlight system becomes much more complicated but also offers new features. For example, should you forget to turn off the headlights, the embedded system’s controller can turn them off after a brief period. It can also be set to leave the lights on to light your path into your home, automatically turning them off after a set time. The lights can also come on automatically when it rains or becomes dark. With the ancient mechanical system, this just wasn’t possible.

These features, or conveniences, make simple tasks a little easier and eliminate problems such as a dead battery. From a solution providing real value to one supplying simple “bling,” embedded systems make these items possible. Many selling points on a vehicle are related to simple conveniences or technical wonders. We have become used to these new conveniences and encourage new ones. Thanks to the power of embedded systems, these items are possible.

Of course everything has a cost, and every positive has a corresponding negative. The days of the backyard mechanic repairing his or her vehicle are almost gone. Without specialized computer test equipment (containing embedded systems themselves), tracing a malfunctioning circuit can be next to impossible without the proper tools, training and technology.

Embedded systems in general provide many benefits, namely:

•    specialization
•    optimization
•    efficiency
•    functionality
•    reliability
•    multi-application cost reduction

Because embedded systems are designed for a specific application, they do one or only a few tasks, but do them extremely well. They are specialized and created with specific goals in mind. Your family doctor may be extremely knowledgeable about a wide array of afflictions, but when it comes to critical medical care, such as open-heart surgery, you may want a cardiac specialist to do your surgery. The same thing applies with embedded systems; casino operations are no less suited to specialization. When you are working with mission-critical applications in a heavily regulated industry, the more secure and safer your operations, the better.

Specialization generally leads to efficiency. An embedded system that performs a very narrow scope of activities can perform extremely well. It focuses on one task and is able to dedicate itself to that task. A slot technician who works on ticket printers can likely diagnose any ticket-related problem much more efficiently than a technician who works on several different platforms and all peripherals.

An embedded system in a slot machine does not have to control the entire slot machine. It will perform only one small function of the overall machine. The bill validator does not have to deal with any aspect of spinning reels, probabilities, etc. It simply takes currency or tickets, analyzes them, and either verifies or rejects the item. To verify a ticket, it simply passes the ticket serial number to a separate system and receives an “accept” or “reject” status. As a result, the embedded bill validator can focus on minute details of its operation in order to ensure currency is not counterfeit or to validate a customer’s ticket.

Functionality increases as a result of both the technology and the limited scope of operation. The car lights now don’t just turn on or off; they provide extra security and protection from a dead battery. Not only has microchip technology allowed this to happen, but utilizing this technology as a small system also allows you to program endless headlight functions, because that’s all the system is required to operate.
Embedded systems frequently have the capability of interfacing with other systems, both other embedded systems and complete microcomputer/server systems. Your workstation’s keyboard is a complete embedded system with a small processor to identify keys pressed in various combinations, to illuminate lights and to send this information to your computer. Some keyboards include small LCD screens, USB hubs and an array of conveniences.

A well-designed system can be used in numerous industries and in varying applications. A bill validator can be used in a slot machine, redemption kiosk, car wash, banking machine or just about any location where currency or currency equivalents are used. This reduces the cost of the embedded system and provides further testing. It also allows features introduced in one industry to spread to other industries and applications. Should some capability be developed for a car wash, it is likely to benefit your casino floor, since the bill validator performs a specialized task.

An application with an embedded system can prove extremely reliable. It is able to constantly monitor itself and shut down in case of a malfunction or situation that could cause its ultimate destruction. A garage door opener may have a sensor switch that indicates it is in the fully up position. If this switch fails, the motor will continue to run, burning out the motor. An embedded system can detect prolonged motor activity and shut it down, even if the switch is not reporting. The same theory applies to stepper motors, hopper motors (remember them?) and dozens of components in your slot machine. As well as reliability from breakdown, it can provide reliability from malfunction. If a ticket printer’s sensor fails (or is blocked by paper or paper dust), the system can also detect that it has been ejecting the ticket paper and should have received notification. The time does not have to be long, either. The system could learn how long it takes to print a ticket and shut down before a second blank ticket has been printed.

Multi-Application Cost Reduction

Since functionality is a major component of an embedded system, designers can strive to incorporate every possible feature into the finished product. This one system can then be sold in different products with different levels of ability. A cell phone can be created with one single system providing the user interface and features. The base model will have more advanced features “turned off” in order to provide an economy phone. Higher-end models, using the same embedded system, can have these extra features “enabled,” providing value for the extra charge. This reduces manufacturing and development costs by allowing the manufacturer to make a single system with various functions and attributes simply available or not available, depending on the model.

Technological Advances and the Future
Many of your household appliances and daily devices include embedded systems. Your microwave, toaster, coffeemaker and refrigerator may all use an embedded system to provide convenience, reliable operation and improved performance. Automobiles may contain up to 50 separate embedded systems, all communicating on a common computer bus. These systems are proliferating into almost every device that takes a battery. If a device includes a digital display, a USB port, a keyboard or a wireless connection, you have an embedded system.

Proprietary is a Bad Word, Right?

In the past, embedded systems may have created visions of proprietary hardware available from only one source. While the manufacturer is still going to have proprietary hardware and firmware, the overall result is becoming more open.

The bill validator will continue to use proprietary hardware and software within the unit. That’s part of the manufacturer’s offering, its intellectual property and the reasons you may select Vendor A over Vendor B. In order to make the hardware work, the system has to be researched, developed, tested and marketed by the manufacturer. They want to protect their investment and offer more features and technological advances than their competitors. This is never going to change, and open networks and open-source applications will not see the end of proprietary hardware and software.

The connection to the outside world, however, is becoming more open. By outside, I mean anything outside of the embedded systems. Industry standards dictate how this proprietary peripheral will communicate with your system. If there is a standard for communication between a slot machine and a bill validator, then many bill validators will communicate using this standard. The net effect is that more and more embedded systems are becoming open in how they interface with your hardware and software systems. The protocols and methods by which systems can communicate can be open and available for any manufacturer to use. This encourages free enterprise and innovation.

Open networks and open protocols allow your casino floor to support more technology than has ever been available before. It also allows more third-party vendors to create devices that will work on your network, whatever your network is. Each of these specific items will continue to contain proprietary components by necessity. They will, however, support open standards that will allow you to select Vendor A, Vendor B, or both. It won’t matter if one machine uses a Brand X ticket printer and the one beside it uses Brand Y. They will both talk to your system and produce tickets that can be used in any of your bill validators, redemption kiosks, cash cages, etc. If Brand X allows you to print promotional tickets with custom graphics (due to its embedded system) and Brand Y does not, that may become your deciding factor to select Brand X as your printer of choice.

When you think of an embedded system, consider not only the small device and application but the larger picture as well. A decade ago, most games on your floor had a limited variety of peripherals and internal components available. Today, and more so in the future, these games will have several options available. There may be several manufacturers that can provide similar peripherals. Your choice depends upon availability, regulatory approval, cost and service. By having options, you have flexibility.

As embedded systems become increasingly complex, the interface should become simpler. These devices can configure themselves and remove the necessity of setting several cryptic options. Devices become increasingly “plug & play” because of embedded systems and their technological advances. The result is ease of operations and lower purchase, installation and support costs. These systems can monitor, test and diagnose themselves, relaying information to your slot machine, your slot systems and your technicians.

A good embedded system takes advantage of technology, processing power, memory and its objective task in order to make your life a little easier. Next time you make a cup of coffee, purchase an item from a vending machine or replace a package of tickets in a game’s printer, think about the embedded systems that are working for you.

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