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.
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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.
“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.
Related to the Scott NcNealy quote and the statement: "Don't break the law and you have nothing to fear." That's all fine and good if the people deciding what the law is are fair and just. If those making the law decide that it should be illegal to petition for redress or to peaceably assembly in support of a cause that the law-makers don't support, then all of us have something to fear.
Our freedoms and privacy are not about having the ability to sneak around and do illegal things without getting caught. They are about ensuring that the government works for us rather than the other way around.
There is so much potential good that could come about from a mass-scale connected society. From simple things like always knowing where the bad traffic is and how to avoid it, to life-saving things like instantly transmitting medical emergencies along with health history and location to first-responders. The potential for good is almost unlimited.
Unfortunately, we live in s civilization where nefarious elements will take every opportunity to exploit weaknesses and governments without sufficient civilian oversight will try to over-control their citizenry. That's why privacy is still so important.
The killer app of the next decade or so is a methodology allowing society to benefit from this new ultra-connected and sensored world without opening all of us up to abuse and exploitation.
How's this for a use: plain-clothed law enforcement officers roam through a crowd at a protest or a sporting event and use their smart phones to surreptitiously scan the crowd for inflammatory speech. "Offenders" have their voice print and an image of their face logged. Their "good citizen" counter is decremented, and when that counter reaches zero, they vanish.
Mobile gaming will benefit quite a lot from MEMS development, and expectedly we shall see more and more applications making mobility to improve the user's experience.
prabhakar_deosthali your example sounds fantastic, but I'm not sure I'd like to see blood stains on my mobile phone, even if it is my own! I recently read of a company doing 'digital bandages', which is similar to what you have described in that it enables monitoring the healing process in a non-intrusive way.
In 1960s when the astronauts traveled in space I used to wonder as a kid to read that there heart beat, Bp and vital parameters were being continuously monitored by NASA at the Space center. Now this MEMS enabled smart phone technology has brought such conveniences in our day-to-day life. It is now only up to the imagination of those innovative entrepreneurs as to what applications to churn out of this technological boon. A simple application comes to my naive mind - A Patient makes a call to the doctor and tells him his/her symptoms and the doctor while talking to the patient automatically gets his/her body temperature, BP and pulse rate data on his mobile. may be a small needle pops out of the mobile and the mobile send the blood sugar information of the patient to the doctor's phone. The doctor sends the prescription to the patient's mobile with his digital signature so that the chemist can issue the necessary medicines to the patient ( and of course the patient pays the doctor using the payment gateway!)
Regarding the privacy issues then just have a look at the "cellular world" to see how things become commonly accepted facts of life - and that after a surprisingly short while. Already now any cellphone user leaves his or her digital footprints in operator logfiles. I, for one, do not see the harm in having that footprint expanded with sensor based information that would be useful to the greater community. Privacy, to me, relates to personal information while my whereabouts at any time, left my privacy sphere a long time ago.
Privacy is indeed a concern with all these intelligent sensor devices. However, with this much sacrifice, I am more interested in understanding what we are getting out from the technology. The article has listed a lot of potentials in different areas. Apparently, traffic condition and weather/ temperature are some of them. Yet, what are the other value added services that we can introduce to the market to make our life easier?
Scott McNealy former Sun CEO said it best, “Privacy is dead, deal with it” That was 1999. In 2010, I think the quote should be, "privacy is dead, enjoy it" Don't break the law and you have nothing to fear. Sensors everywhere means no gun shot would go unlocated. No cry for help will go unheard. No bad guy will go uncaught. My house is protected with senors and cameras, made so cheap I can afford a lot of them. That's good.
It's time to start thinking about personal safety. Folks are just getting too connected. It is amazing how quickly folks have compromised their privacy and think nothing of it. No facebook or the others here. I'm out of town...Please come rob my house.
I, for one, look forward to the next generation MEMs enabled devices with both interest and concern. I would like to see the ability to shut off these "features" or to make them "private" to provide the owner/user some privacy. In the coming age, we will have great technology and much improved real life experiences (say for example: real time traffic avoidance) but at a cost of public domain versus privacy issues. It seems every time I check the news (on-line of course) I read about some security breach of personal data from a large corporation. Even the web surfing, emails (private - not really) is all logged and kept. I hope that in the future we the consumers will have options that protect us as well as serve us.
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