PORTLAND, Ore. — The industry's worst-kept secret is that the first mobile handset to pack a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) gyroscope will roll next month. Analyst speculation on the vendor has ranged from Apple (with the iPhone 4G) to HTC and ST-Ericsson, but regardless of who is first, every major smartphone vendor is predicted to follow suit by 2012.
Gyroscopes will become ubiquitous in smartphones, according to analysts, because gyros can support new user interface modes, enhance the online gaming experience, perform indoor navigation by virtue of dead reckoning and enable augmented-reality applications that overlay information about a target when a phone's digital camera is pointed at it.
Just as the Apple iPhone opened the eyes of handset vendors to how a MEMS accelerometer could harness motion to change from portrait to landscape views, the MotionPlus game controller for Nintendo's Wii "has stimulated the imagination of handset makers" by proving "how well a six-axis solution—a three-axis accelerometer plus three-axis gyroscope—works by making the motion recognition smoother and more precise," said iSuppli analyst Jérémie Bouchaud.
With accelerometers alone, said Doug Vargha, director of marketing for InvenSense's gaming and 3-D user interface business unit, "you can either get a really noisy output that is responsive, or you can get a clean output that's sluggish. But when you combine an accelerometer with a gyro, you get a clean output that is responsive. The accelerometer alone can't tell the difference between motion and gravity, but with the addition of a gyro you can immediately sense the onset of motion, making the user interface more responsive and free from artifacts."
InvenSense provides the chip for the Wii MotionPlus’ add-on gyroscope, which snaps onto the bottom of the remote, adding the ability to detect angular momentum in all three dimensions (complementing the accelerometer's ability to measure linear acceleration).
The overall MEMS gyroscope market, the bulk of which is for image stabilization in digital cameras, will rise from $447 million in 2009 to more than $763 million by 2012, according to iSuppli. Will Strauss, founder of Forward Concepts Co. (Tempe, Ariz.), predicts that the worldwide market for MEMS gyroscopes in mobile handsets will rise from zero last year to $38 million this year and more than $70 million by 2012.
MEMS gyroscopes' first success story was in the digital still camera market, where they have almost 100 percent penetration, according to Mike Housholder, director of marketing for the mobile handset business unit at InvenSense.
"In the digital still camera and digital video camera markets today, any camera that has more than 5 megapixels has a gyro too," said Housholder.
Likewise, in phones, MEMS gyroscopes' first task will be to stabilize the integrated digital camera. "As smartphones integrate higher-pixel-count digital cameras—from 5 to 8 to 10 to 12-megapixels—the quality of the photos made will depend very heavily on image stabilization," said Housholder.
Once onboard, however, the gyro can also be used to enhance online gaming; perform indoor navigation by virtue of dead reckoning; augment reality with information overlays; and vastly expand the range of motion-based commands, such as turning the phone upside down to silence it, shaking it to dial or even sealing a transaction via an in-the-air "signature." In a YouTube video, Housholder demonstrates all the phone enhancements that a gyro might enable.
Mike Housholder demonstrates a MEMS gyro-enabled phone.