The ever-expanding ecosystem of smartphone apps owes a great deal to MEMS sensors. Indeed, smartphones, with their always-on Internet access and growing complement of sensor technologies, are quickly becoming the planet’s premier wireless sensor network.
“The cell phone is inherently a sensor; even its microphone gives you information on what type of environment you are in, from background or perhaps traffic noise. By using sensor fusion, you can take information from all of these sensors, even the ambient-light sensor, and create apps that have never been thought of before,” noted iSuppli Corp. analyst Jérémie Bouchard.
MEMS sensors in mobile handsets are allowing apps that not only dazzle users but could one day monitor the pulse of the planet. “We are interacting with the world in a more effective manner today because of the MEMS sensors in our mobile handsets; it’s not just for the gee-whiz factor anymore,” said Karen Lightman, managing director of the MEMS Industry Group (MIG). “All over the world, MEMS sensors are improving the quality of life for those using them.”
“Today the Internet is just a brain that can find things and do calculations, but sensors will allow that brain to become aware of its surroundings,” said Peter Hartwell, a senior researcher at HP Labs and developer of Hewlett-Packard’s ultra-sensitive accelerometer. “We are adding a central nervous system to the Earth that will allow us to get the information we need to understand our impact.”
Apple began the revolution by equipping the iPhone with an accelerometer to switch its display automatically from portrait to landscape orientation. The competition quickly followed suit. Now Apple has a storeful of novel apps that exploit the iPhone’s accelerometer for gaming, health monitoring, sports training and countless other uses thought up by legions of developers.
The accelerometer’s ability to respond to a user’s motions has turned previously pedestrian operations (such as manual scrolling) into gamelike experiences (such as tilt to scroll), redoubling users’ ardor for their mobile handsets. The race to add accelerometers to an earlier generation of smartphones has become this year’s race to add MEMS gyroscopes, and next year’s designs are likely to see the addition of barometric pressure, humidity and temperature sensors.
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“Smartphones are getting smarter because of all the sensors being added to them; just having an Internet connection does not make your phone smart,” said Steve Nasiri, founder of Invensense Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.), which brought the first three-axis gyroscope to market last year.
Invensense pitched its gyro to Apple; the OEM bought from a larger vendor, STMicroelectronics. But Invensense, which plans an initial public offering later this year, claims it has many design wins with Android handset makers and predicts that gyro-enabled Android handsets will hit the market by year’s end.
“There are two camps now: the Apple camp and the Android camp,” Nasiri said. “Apple has the luxury of being able to add new sensors to its iPhone, because of this army of developers they have creating apps that use them. Other smartphone vendors have been envious but were unable to match Apple’s App Store.
“Android levels the playing field with an app store [Android Market] that rivals Apple’s. Now Android handset makers don’t have to identify the next killer application; they just have to add the sensors, and the app store will find the best ways to use them.”
Said MIG’s Lightman, “I believe there would be no app store phenomenon, if not for MEMS sensors.”
The stakes are huge. As the price of some MEMS sensors dips below a dollar, every smartphone vendor is scrambling to match Apple’s sensor complement. Hence the booming mobile device market for MEMS sensors, according to iSuppli’s Bouchard, who predicts that next year MEMS chips in cell phones will pass the $1 billion mark—up from $821 million in 2010—and that the market will exceed $2 billion by 2015.