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New CE apps clearing way for MEMS

Posted: 01 Jan 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:MEMS? CE? consumer electronics? microelectromechanical systems? ADI?

Emerging consumer applicaTIons combined with strides in manufacturing, testing and packaging could transform microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) from last year's trendy technology into a viable market.

There is little agreement on how quickly MEMS might show up in mainstream applications ranging from tire pressure sensors and cellphone switches to mirrors that assess skin blemishes. But advances in areas like MEMS resonators to replace quartz crystals in timing devices offer hope that MEMS' time may have arrived.

"There are issues of cost, huge swings in demandand you have to deal with ramp-up issues. There are much simpler markets to go after," said Jeff Niew, VP with Knowles Acoustics. "But the rewards are there"especially if MEMS can break into consumer.

Such applications will be driven by users' desire to "make mobile devices smarter and have them do things automatically for them," said Conor Power, product-marketing manager of instrument and automotive converters at Analog Devices Inc. (ADI). "They want their devices to remotely detect things they can't see, and to do things when they can't be there to do them."

In established markets like timing devices, MEMS developers run the risk that current technology providers will simply dump their products on the market to fend off emerging rivals, said Jeremie Bouchaud, an industry analyst with WTC Wicht Technologies Consulting. "The biggest competitors are the conventional technologies."

Bouchaud said a key milestone will occur when devices like MEMS switches show up on cellphones. While some industry analysts think that could happen next year, Bouchaud predicts they won't appear until 2008 at the earliest.

Embedded sensors
The rise of MEMS reflects the arrival of a growing number of applications that embed a sensor in a handheld devicea cellphone, a portable computer, a digital camera or even a tire. In these apps, the sensor needs to be placed close to an object whose subtle changes it detects, measures and monitors. That sensed information then must be processed and transmitted to a CPU in a smart network (or, in the case of an automobile, the electronic control unit).

"Sensors detect things we cannot see. The sensor processing then tunes into the sensed data and conditions the signals for conversion," said Mack Lund, product manager of the Micromachined Products Division at ADI. "MEMS technology allows us to get to a tiny structure for detecting tiny movement or capacitance changes."

MEMS will also help make that sensor (or sensor-processing device) smaller, cheaper and more reliable, so that it can be integrated in various systems and objects, Lund said.

Gene Frantz, principal fellow at Texas Instruments Inc. (TI), prophesied a new era in which traditional ADC shifts to "A-to-I or analog-to-information conversion." The key here, said Frantz, is that A-to-I converts the data to "appropriate information."

When that information is wirelessly communicated to a system, the sensing device, combined with a sensor processor, need only send relevant information. "That saves power and improves the system's performance," said ADI's Lund.

TI's Frantz described the endgame as "a small module integrated with a sensor, DSP to convert pictures to information, RF to transmit information and power supply." A user could position 20 of them around the house to build a surveillance system, for example.

The emergence of wireless-network standards like Zigbee is spawning the widespread use of sensors in embedded devices, according to Geir Forre, managing director at TI Norway. "Mobile phones have a cellular network and PCs have an Ethernet. But until recently, 99 percent of devices were either not connected, or connected only with wires," Forre said.

Once devices embedded with sensors are linked to a standards-based wireless network like Zigbee, "it enhances the value of devices and opens up new applications adding energy- and cost-saving, comfort or convenience features," Forre said.

Is timing right for MEMS? Tiny devices score big as quartz-crystal stand-in.

Cracking into CE
While industrial and automotive applications remain the dominant market for sensors, suppliers of both MEMS and sensors harbor high hopes that their technologies will crack consumer devices. They foresee all manner of applications, from the wacky to the promising.

The industry is working on "killer apps," said Christophe Lemaire, customer marketing manager at ADI. One idea is a handset accelerometer that lets consumers scroll down Websites by tilting their phone. The same handset sensor could detect the motion of a user picking up the phone and raising it to her ear. The sensor would automatically shut off the phone's display (ears can't see) to save power.

A user could also switch off ringtones during a meeting by placing the handset facedown on a table, for example. If you flip the phone face up, the ring tones return.

The silliest app may be the cellphone digital mirror that would give blemish alerts. In theory, a consumer could photograph his face with his camera phone and have the handset analyze the image in search of pimples. If the zit alarm went off, the user could take the appropriate cosmetic steps, call the dermatologist or find a place to hide until the outbreak was over.

Such a feature would require placing an image sensor and DSP inside a cellphone. After the image sensor captured a skin image, the DSP would process the data and generate "appropriate information" about any changes in the image, according to TI's Frantz.

There is indeed a software developer working on a skin-analysis algorithm to detect and predict incipient blemishes, Frantz said. But he declined to reveal the developer's name or the state of his complexion.

- Brian Fuller, Junko Yoshida
EE Times

George Leopold contributed to this story.

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