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MEMS sensors lead smartphones to the Internet of Things

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Various sensing technologies will enable handsets to match the future trend for interconnected smart systems.

The single most prominent trend in the mobile arena today is MEMS devices taking next-generation smartphones to the Internet of Things.

The handset is predicted to become the controlling device in a future environment where objects embedded with sensors, MCUs and RF devices are able to interface with each other. The network will extend from consumer products to healthcare monitoring systems, home automation installations and other intelligent systems.

MEMS sensors will continue to gain headway in the smartphone market as more handsets integrate the device. Samsung’s Galaxy S4, for instance, has eight such components. Industry observers anticipate upcoming models can house as many as 30 sensing units. This is because MEMS components enable various applications, including indoor and outdoor navigation, location-based services, immersive gaming and augmented reality.

“We are seeing the emergence of applications for indoor navigation, personal healthcare, exercise and fitness, and others that utilize a combination of sensors functioning seamlessly to deliver a high level of connectivity and information processing,” said Fabio Pasolini, general manager of Motion MEMS at STMicroelectronics. “Further down the road, we will see applications that enable augmented environmental sensing as the adoption of smart systems become more prevalent.”

Smartphones have already started to converge with wearable computing, while MEMS technology spawns other mobile devices such as smart watches and Google Glass. Camera shake and auto-focus actuators will play an important role in making the latter new-generation gadgets a commercial reality.

Emerging sensor technologies

Accelerometers and gyroscopes will continue to be widely adopted, and will be joined by new devices as handset makers design more smart functions into new models.

“We are seeing increasing demand for other types of sensor technologies such as eCompass, microphones and pressure sensors,” said Pasolini.

There is also a similar trend in fusion modules that combine accelerometers and gyroscopes, Pasolini added.

Such embedded solutions in a single package, in turn, are seen to pave the way for the development of MEMS sensors with capability beyond motion detection. These include environmental counterparts for pressure, temperature and humidity, and acoustic sensors and related technologies, including microphone arrays, voice processing and ultrasonic gesture recognition.

With RF connectivity, emerging MEMS devices will enable augmented environmental sensing, according to Pasolini. They will support situational awareness, points of interests, finding friends, navigational hints, mobile advertisements and security alerts. This will spur demand for micromirrors for pico projectors, and camera-shake and auto-focus actuators.

In the RF sector, opportunities will open up for bulk acoustic wave and thin-film bulk acoustic resonator filters, antenna switches and digital tuning capacitors. “Antenna switches and digital tuning capacitors are seeing a lot of development, pushed by 4G LTE networks for smart antennas and as many as 40 frequency bands that have to be switched,” said Will Strauss, principal analyst at Forward Concepts.

Overall, gyroscopes will be the largest sensor category for mobile phones by 2017, displacing accelerometers, according to Strauss. Pressure sensing units are also expected to post rapid growth, fueled by rising indoor GPS-type application.

In 2012, sensors represented 68 percent of the $3.9 billion handset MEMS market, with microphones following with 19 percent and emerging components the rest.

Apple kick-started the MEMS trend by embedding accelerometers and gyroscopes in the iPhone for motion sensing. The addition of the sensors enhanced mobile gaming features such as landscape-to-portrait rotation and dead-reckoning navigation.

Related reports:
MEMS acceleration transducers: China companies pursue development
MEMS microphones: Growing patent pool boosts China’s sector

Contributed by Majeed Ahmad, author of Smartphone, Nokia’s Smartphone Problem and Business Untethered. Majeed has been writing about technology and trade for more than 17 years.

Note: All price quotes in this report are in US dollars unless otherwise specified. FOB prices were provided by the companies interviewed only as reference prices at the time of interview and may have changed.

Disclaimer: All product images are provided by the companies interviewed and are for reference purposes only. Those product images featuring products with trademarks, brand names or logos are not intended for sale. We, our affiliates, and our affiliates' respective directors, officers, employees, representatives, agents or contractors, do not accept and will not have any responsibility or liability for product images (or any part thereof) which infringe on any intellectual property or other rights of a third party.

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