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USB Cable Testers, Product Safety Assurance, and Woodworking
Staff Writer

Total Phase's CEO, Gil Ben-Dov, sat down with EE Journal's Amelia Dalton to discuss USB Type-C's impact on today's electronics market and the emerging need for cable testing.


Amelia Dalton: Oh, hey, it's you. Welcome to Amelia's Weekly Fish Fry, brought to you by EEJournal.com. I'm Amelia Dalton, and my friends, have you ever had that feeling like you're not in Kansas anymore? That things aren't quite what they seem? And a pair of ruby slippers is ne'er to be seen? Well, we're starting off this week with a little hot-off-the-extreme-physics-presses news you may have missed.

So, what if everything around us, the universe itself, is a hologram? Sure, the idea that we're actually living in a holographic universe has been around since "The Matrix." I mean, the 1990s. But now, a group of researchers from the UK, Canada and Italy, claim that they have substantial proof that our 3D reality is really only contained on a 2D surface. Okay, let's keep rolling with this movie analogy, shall we? Think of it like a 3D film, maybe even starring Keanu Reeves. Mm-hmm? With those funny little glasses we see the objects, actors and their sunglasses all the time, having height, width and, crucially, depth. And actually, in reality, it all originates from a flat 2D screen. A key difference though, in our 3D universe versus those movies, or really, this even extends to recent advances in VR, is that we can actually touch objects and the projection is real from our perspective. Okay. That real thing, that's a whole other run through a rabbit hole we don't have time for today.

Okay. So, what exactly is this substantial proof? Well, it all comes down to recent advances in telescopes and sensing equipment, which has allowed scientists to detect a vast amount of data hidden in the cosmic microwave background of the universe. This cosmic background is a kind of afterglow of the Big Bang, a kind of a white noise that was left over from the moment the universe was created. So, building on this cosmic afterglow white noise information, this multinational team were able to draw comparisons between features in the data and quantum field theory. They found that some of the simplest quantum field theories could explain nearly all cosmological observations of the early universe. This team goes on to contend that Einstein's theory of general relatively explains most almost everything at large scale. But when it comes down to the origins and mechanics at quantum level, well, it starts to break down. This group of researches believes that the concept of a holographic universe has the potential to reconcile Einstein's theory of gravity and quantum theory.

A member of this team, Niayesh Afshordi, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo, wrapped up this research in a rather interesting way. He said, "Holography is like Rosetta Stone. Translating between known theories of quantum fields without gravity, and the uncharted territory of quantum gravity itself." Wow. If you love this stuff as much as I do, I would strongly encourage you to click the link below the player on this week's Fish Frying page on eejournal.com for more information. Now, even if we are all in the Matrix, we're still gonna need to de-bug and test our designs. Some things are just unavoidable. My guest this week is Gil Ben-Dov, CEO of Total Phase. Gil and I are discussing USB Type-C, the unique testing challenges that this upstart technology sends our way and more. Check it out.

Hi, Gil. Thank you so much for joining me.

Gil Ben-Dov: Thanks for having me, Amelia.

Amelia Dalton: So, first off, for my audience that may not know, what is Total Phase all about?

Gil Ben-Dov: Sure. Total Phase is a test and measurement company. Traditionally, we sell to engineers and we provide tools that help them design and de-bug embedded systems. And recently, we've taken that to the next level. There are some new products on the market, USB Type-C cables that kind of cross the border. They're no longer just simple cables that conduct data or power from point A to point B, they actually have embedded messages and play an active role in your embedded system. So, we've taken a look at taking our traditional embedded system strength and moving it into that new space.

Amelia Dalton: All right. Let's talk about USB Type-C. Now, it seems like testing USB Type-C, and especially its cabling, would be a lot harder than previous USB versions. Do you think this is true, and what are the specific challenges we're looking at here?

Gil Ben-Dov: First, it is absolutely true. So, USB cables prior to Type-C maxed out at data rate of 5 gigabits per second. Now, it's 10 gigabits per second. And while it doesn't sound like it's a huge change, doubling that data rate does make it incredibly more complex to go ahead and pass signals along. It really means that the quality of the cable is more important than ever. Old USB, that is the Type-A that we've become accustomed to over the last many years, could handle anywhere from 500 to 900, and the newest specs were 1.5 amps of power, but always at 5 volts. So, never more than 4 and a half watts of power. Now, all of a sudden, you can go 20 volts and 5 amps. That's 100 watts of power. And 100 watts of power is a lot, 20 times what it used to be, and that means there's more opportunity for, if there is a mistake, a really big problem can happen.

Then, when you combine high-speed data and power on the same cable, and a lot of switching and reassignment of pins and things like that necessary to make the whole protocol work, it becomes a much more complicated thing than ever before. So, there really is no peer for saying, how did they test before? It used to be, if the cable worked, great, if it didn't work it wasn't gonna hurt you. Now, if the cable works, great. If the cable doesn't work it can actually damage your computer, your test equipment, even cause a fire as we can thank Samsung for pointing out. A small battery can cause a lot of damage.

Amelia Dalton: So, you guys just announced the advanced cable tester. So, what does this buy me as an engineer? What are the benefits that this tester provides that other solutions do not?

Gil Ben-Dov: Sure. So, probably first and foremost, what this tester offers, it's the only tester that's ever been created that tests the full capabilities of a USB Type-C cable. So, in the old days, it didn't really have to be tested as thoroughly because if there was a mistake there was no penalty, as it were. The cable doesn't work, it's not gonna hurt anything, because you're not gonna start a fire or damage a system from 5 volts, and that's the end of it. Now, all of a sudden, you have to test it.

So, with the advanced cable tester, you can plug your cable in, and the very first thing we do is we check for shorts and grounds that are gonna go ahead and tell us if that cable is unsafe to operate. We've seen a few of those cases in the news over the last couple of months. There was a case back in March or April where an engineer from Google was buying cables on Amazon. And he actually destroyed his analysis equipment and his ChromeBook Pixel, because there was a wire that was crossed in the cable he bought on Amazon. No warning, it just happened and it was over. There was another case at the very end of August where ANCHOR cable had a recall. There was a blogger named Nathan K, I believe, that was able to demonstrate that this particular cable remembered the contract negotiation from the last device, so that if you had negotiated with, say, a laptop at 15 volts and then plugged that same cable into your phone, it would have fried your phone. So, it's really clear that it's impossible to catch these things off the production line alone, without some form of test afterwards. And that's really where we come in.

What you can do with this cable tester is you can plug in both ends of your Type-C cable, we'll make sure the cable's safe. Once we've verified the cable is safe, we'll then make sure that the resistance on the lines within that cable are within normal limits. That goes back to safety again, because if the resistance is too high, you could cause heat. Heat causes increased resistance and, in turn, increased resistance causes more heat and eventually could lead to that same short or fire that we're concerned about. Once we've done those two things, we then check the E-marker on the cable. It's one of those active components. The key here is, the cable has to broadcast what it's capable of doing. If it turns out the cable broadcasts that it's able to conduct 5 amps of power, but in reality it's only able to conduct 3 amps, we need to flag that because that could result in that same over-current condition that could cause a safety issue. And once we've done all those things together, we can now say, "This cable is fundamentally safe." Then, we check the actual operation of the cable for the purpose intended. So, we check all the other wiring. Is every wire routed to the right place, so that the cable will function correctly? Is the cable able to carry the data rate that the cable was specified to carry?

I'm on a trip right now, in Asia, and I've had the pleasure of going to the market a few times, and I bought four cables so far on this trip. And all four of the four cables I bought in Asia have been unable to meet a passing grade. And that's kind of alarming because, in their own way, each of those cables is dangerous and absolutely none of them is reliable.

Amelia Dalton: Wow. Okay, cool. That's pretty incredible if you think about it. Tell me a bit more about the other types of development and manufacturing tools that Total Phase offers.

Gil Ben-Dov: Sure. So, Total Phase has always been known for making embedded system design and de-bug tools. So, in the USB space, the one we're talking about right now, we make a line of products that are called Beagle. And Beagle products have good noses, which means they're able to sniff out bugs, and that's exactly what we do on USB. You put our device between a host and a device, and it'll go ahead and monitor all the traffic and it'll help you identify, where is miscommunication occurring?

So, on the USB side of the world, we've always been known as a company that develop really good high-speed sniffers. The rest of our business involves other protocols, like I Squared C, SPI and CAN. And what we've done there, in addition to having the powerful sniffing tools, we've also had tools that have been able to be active, that generate traffic and help you stimulate your embedded system to go ahead and respond. With a cable tester, we've kind of combined those both together. Once you plug that cable in, it's actually our cable tester that's gonna stimulate the cable to get it to tell, what does it broadcast itself as? And then, it's gonna be our sniffing side of the world that's gonna revive that signal, decode it and give it to you in a plain format. So, you can actually, in about 15 seconds, push a button and have a test report that says, "Here's everything you need to know about your cable." Is it suitable for my lab? Is it suitable to be sold? Etc.

Amelia Dalton: Excellent. All right, Gil. It's time for your off-the-cuff question. Now, I know you enjoy woodworking outside of Total Phase. What is a recent project you've worked on?

Gil Ben-Dov: Sure. So, absolutely, I love doing woodwork. I'm one of those guys who actually likes to get out and buy the rough lumber, then plane it down to the thickness I need and go from that point. And I think it all starts because, when it comes to work, I get to work with all these really cool companies that do great things, but on a personal basis I just get to help someone else. So, when it comes to home stuff, I like to do things that I can see myself. I think the coolest one I never did is, a friend of mine is having a baby and I actually built a cradle from rough-cut oak that I was able to purchase in the mountains. And it was really cool. When it was all put together, it was an old shaker design and it was put together with absolutely no metal at all. All tongue-and-groove joinery, to go ahead a provide a really sturdy heirloom-type cradle that can be passed down from generation to generation, while it looked pretty cool at the same time.

Amelia Dalton: Wow, Gil. That is super cool. I am thoroughly impressed. Well, I think that's all I have time for today. Thank you so much for joining me.

Gil Ben-Dov: And thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

Amelia Dalton: Hey, have you checkd out EEJournal on social media yet? Well, you should. You can find us at facebook.com/eejournal. If you're into Twitter, you can monitor our tweets at EEJournaltfm, and if LinkdIn is more your thing, sure, you can follow us on LinkdIn as well. And we have a YouTube channel. Keyword, EEJournal. Chock full of all kinds of techie videos and including our very popular Chalk Talk webcast series. And you can subscribe to our EEJournal YouTube channel, as well. Also, by clicking the links below the player on this week's Fish Frying page, you can grab our Fish Frying RRS feed or subscribe to Fish Fry via the iTunes store. And remember, if you want any further information about the stories covered in today's show, just head on over to eejournal.com and look for this week's Fish Frying page.

And thank you, everyone, for tuning in. If you know of any cool new technology, even if your company makes it, it's totally cool. Any fun EE conference coming up that I absolutely should attend, or even the best geeky hotspot in your city, shoot me a line at amelia@eejournal.com or post a comment on our forums on EEJournal. For the week of February 3rd, 2017, I'm Amelia Dalton and you've been fried.