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What's the next big application?

Posted: 04 Jan 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:technology application? smart grid? touchscreen? OLED? MEMS?

Roll-to-roll doesn't seem quite ready to rock the house.

Roll-to-roll: ready to rock?
Picture an old movie clip of a printing press churning out the city edition, and you've got the gist of roll-to-roll manufacturing. Applied to electronics, the technique pairs a familiar concept with novel materials, promising a new class of paper-thin products!batteries, LEDs, memories, RFID tags, solar cells and more!mass-produced at low cost.

That, at least, is the vision. The reality is that roll-to-roll is a tricky process, and many have tried it and failed. One early failure was FlexICs, which, with partial funding from Intel, sought to develop semiconductors on plastic substrates for flat-panel displays. It went out of business in 2005.

Among those that remain unbowed is Germany's PolyIC GmbH & Co., which recently disclosed a 20bit plastic memory device being developed via a roll-to-roll process. The technology is from Norway's ThinFilm Electronics ASA, which is working to unlock the electrical switching properties of polythiophenes. But ThinFilm has been working for a long time!since 1994, with former parent Opticom ASA!and there are no real products yet to show for it.

There's more work to be done as well in roll-to-roll-produced solar cells. Startup Solarmer Energy Inc. recently reported that its plastic solar cells had hit 7.9 percent efficiency. Solar-cell provider Konarka Technologies Inc. has partnered with Arch Aluminum & Glass Co. to test so-called solar curtains for buildings: The aim is to cover a structure with solar panels based on Konarka's plastic film, with the cells expected to generate 1.5 kW for the facility. But the solar cells themselves achieve just 3 percent efficiency, according to reports. Those numbers pale beside the 22 percent efficiency of today's silicon-based solar cells.

Japan's Konica Minolta Holdings Inc. is developing roll-produced OLEDs. In November, the company announced construction of a pilot roll-to-roll coating line for OLED lighting products at its Hino facility in Tokyo. Production is slated for 2010.

Back in 2007, Konica Minolta signed an agreement with General Electric in a bid to accelerate OLED development. GE itself intends to begin volume production next year on flexible, paper-thin lighting panels using roll-to-roll.

The downside of this activity is that OLED panels are not yet bright enough to replace high-intensity bulbs.

All of these developments are intriguing. But roll-to-roll doesn't seem quite ready to rock the house.

By 2010 MEMS gyroscopes will be added to GPS navigational devices and to a new breed of 3D peripherals.

Spinning MEMS gyros
Three-axis MEMS-based gyroscopes will soon enable a new generation of even smarter smart phones, as well as smarter, more intuitive, more responsive game controllers and remotes. Today MEMS gyroscopes are used to stabilize digital images taken by cameras and high-end cell phones, but starting in 2010 they will be added to GPS navigational devices (for dead reckoning when the signal is lost indoors) and to a new breed of 3D peripherals, such as in-air mice.

The MEMS accelerometers used in such consumer platforms as the iPhone, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii opened a door to user interface enhancements that are now moving to full-fledged gyroscopes. An accelerometer, like the one that switches the iPhone's display from portrait to landscape mode, depends on your motion working against gravity to establish its orientation. Instead of waiting for user to move, MEMS gyroscopes generate their own, internal motion, invoking the Coriolis effect to track angular momentum. Gyroscopes provide a real-time readout of their orientation!pitch, roll and yaw!which can be used to control the motion of a cursor with pinpoint accuracy, and to recognize human gestures such as pointing, tapping and scrolling.

MEMS gyros promise to revolutionize human gesture recognition as well as make remote-control menu selection and navigation a viable alternative to the traditional keyboard and mouse. Of course, we have heard such claims before; other in-air mice, and even more complex 3D peripherals, have been floated but have failed to catch on.

Other technologies will also vie with MEMS gyroscopes for user acceptance. For example, 3D image sensors already enable some computers to read complex hand gestures. Imagine the possibilities for TVs equipped with the technology; there's no danger of losing the remote when you can scroll, point and select with a wave of your bare hand. Likewise, GPS units could perform dead reckoning by using triangulation of indoor Wi-Fi antennas, without requiring a MEMS chip. And the venerable keyboard will likely remain the most convenient approach for computer-based text input.

In gaming controllers, however, it's hard to see a disadvantage to the gyroscope. Look for MEMS gyros to debut in the forthcoming Wii MotionPlus accessory.


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