Chips That Personalize Your Pc

SINCE THE 1970s, SCIENTISTS have explored the idea of "reconfigurable computers." These machines would have exotic chips that could adapt to any problem at hand by rewiring their silicon circuitry. The idea is appealing because special-purpose chips can solve problems faster than software running on ordinary chips.

In the 1980s, engineers took their first crack at changeling chips with so-called field-programmable gate arrays. FPGAs can be rewired over and over electronically, and are used in telecommunications and other industrial electronics. Now, the technology is poised to enter the consumer market.

Next month, Metalithic Systems Inc. in Sausalito, Calif. will launch a sound board called Digital Wings that uses FPGAs from Xilinx Inc. in San Jose, Calif. Software in the chips will let the user create and edit 128 audio tracks. It will give Windows 95 PC users the audio synthesis and editing tools of a professional sound studio--all for about $1,500. Eventually, says Metalithic President Daryl Eigen, users will be able to upgrade the chips simply by downloading software from Metalithic's Web site.

Smart sound boards are still a far cry from early ideas of reconfigurable computers. The military is still chasing that dream. In early September, the Defense Dept.'s Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded $2.35 million to chipmaker Zycad Corp. in Fremont, Calif., to develop a computer platform based on its programmable chips.

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