Sharply falling costs, and greatly improved software to ease design-in, look to be about to enable the next generation of inertial sensor applications to distinguish mobile consumer devices.
LG's Optimus Black Android phone uses a gyroscope to enable its convenient one-hand interface, where the user can move from screen to screen by tilting the phone. (A thumb button on the side of the phone activates the gyro for use.) This phone is also the first to use a gyro from MEMS startup InvenSense, a big design win for a small fabless company that attests to the maturity and volume reliability of the MEMS foundry supply chain, as well as to the software support for turning sensor data into functions from both InvenSense and Android. Gyros will likely also soon find use for image stabilization to improve the quality of cell phone photos.
Gyroscopes are also appearing in TV remote controls that aim to ease the use of Internet TV. LG is now shipping a TV with a point-and-click remote control using motion control software from Hillcrest Labs that does the sensor fusion, calibration and signal processing to remove imperfections in the data and compensate for temperature variations for a more precise data stream, then wraps it with a mouse pointer function, for precise point and click to easily navigate the many TV options. The large remote control OEMs SMK and Universal Electronics are also customers. Hillcrest has also helped to evangelize the idea of motion control and move the infrastructure along with its own ring-shaped point-and-click remote control and a computer web browser designed specifically for computers linked to the TV. LG's involvement has also spurred development of graphic interfaces for point-and-click TV navigation from a number of major television content suppliers. Internet service providers and set top box makers are getting into the act as well. France's Free ISP has introduced a set top box designed by Philippe Starck with a motion sensing remote with Movea software to control its extensive menu of live and streaming TV, internet, gaming and phone services.
But the major driver for inertial sensors in mobile consumer devices going forward is likely to be the demand for more accurate location and navigation applications. GPS chipset makers report their customers are asking for more reliable pedestrian navigation capability that combines outdoor and indoor maps for location-aware searches, so users can find what they want, where they want it. This useful level of accurate navigation depends on having not only an accelerometer and a magnetometer, but also a gyroscope and a pressure sensor, to accurately track steps and changes in direction and level to be able to locate the user by dead reckoning when radio or satellite signals aren't available. Here too the infrastructure is developing, with indoor maps of major US destination locations like malls and airports now available from suppliers like Point Inside, indoor location signals installed by some interested store or mall management, and advertisers testing various hyper-localized information or offers. First localized search applications like Gas Buddy, OpenTable and Groupon's "I'm Hungry", which don't need particularly high accuracy of location, are finding traction with consumers in the US. More detailed search within stores or augmented reality that can show information about particular places will however require the full set of accurate, low drift sensors to improve precision from tens of meters down to within meters.
Laurent Robin is a market analyst in charge of MEMS device activity at Yole Développement, a market research firm based in Lyon, France.