As expected, the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nev., was dominated by gadgets. Touchscreens and inertial motion were key features for many devices and applications. Many of these gadgets, such as those for fitness and wellness, are intended to be used with smartphones, tablets, and PCs, usually connected wirelessly via Bluetooth or WiFi. The smartphone seemed to be the platform of choice for accessing devices via apps.
How significant is the growth of MEMS sensors in consumer electronics? The MEMS Industry Group held a half-day technical session Tuesday morning. There were panels discussing Indoor Navigation, Digital Displays, and MEMS for sound and signal quality. Klaus Meder, president, Bosch Automotive Electronics, gave the keynote at this session. Bosch has been the leader in automotive MEMS. With the growth of MEMS in consumer electronics, Bosch is increasing its focus on the sector. Bosch sees the main drivers for MEMS as magnetometers, gyroscopes, accelerometers, pressure, and microphones. In the future, humidity may become another important MEMS sensor.
Meder sees three waves for MEMS. The first wave has been automotive. We are currently in the second wave of consumer electronics (CE). The third wave will be driven by industrial. He includes in industrial building controls, the connected home, building integration (including HVAC), white goods, and the connected car. The Internet of Things (IoT), which many companies are talking about, would be in this third wave.
The product vendors did not talk much about the sensors themselves. However, I spoke with the MEMS vendors that were there. Many of the products featured sensors from InvenSense, Kionix, Freescale, PNI Sensor, and STMicroelectronics NV (NYSE: STM). ST discussed wireless sensors for fitness and wearables, including Nike Fuelband. This includes MCU+ gyro+ battery charger. The companies providing the software and intelligence for these sensor systems were there as well, namely Sensor Platforms, Kionix, and PNI Sensor.
The sensors are being implemented in more devices, but they will need contextual awareness to become truly useful. This is what the software offers. In its separate demo room, Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN) presented several of these wearable health and fitness devices. These used TI's standard MCUs working with MEMS sensors from several different vendors.
Many of the devices shown at CES provide motion tracking for navigation and location-based services, or for medical applications, fitness, and health. For the most part, these are wearable devices. There was of course quite a bit of gaming. My colleague has reported on her experience with a shooting game featuring PNI Sensor's technology. There were games that feature augmented reality. Some of these used motion tracking sensors for devices, such as Sphero. (See: Crushing on PNI Sensor's Games Tracker .)
Other games used gesture tracking to put you or an avatar into the game. XSens used many sensors made by ST for its motion capture technology. While the demo shown was for commercial applications, one can see how XSens may find its way into more consumer-type applications in the future.
Better imaging is always a big deal at CES. I had meetings with TI and Microvision about their pico projectors. ST had a pre-CES meeting where they demonstrated the recent acquisition of bTendo pico projector. They are all supplying or will be supplying the micro-mirror and control IC to OEMs and sub-contractors who will customize their own modules. These are all very impressive products. Currently, the penetration rate for pico projectors in smartphones is in the low single digit percentages. The integrated pico projector adds roughly $50 to $100 to the retail price of a similar model smartphone.
I seem to recall just over 10 years ago when cameras started to appear in cellphones that this was also the same price differential. All the pico projector vendors showed improved imaging and lower power. This feature looks to be at the nascent stage. In his keynote at the MEMS technical session, Meder of Bosch indicated that the company is also developing micro mirrors.
The pico projectors are also being integrated into tablets and notebook PCs. There are smartphone accessories and portable table top versions. The MEMS pico projector vendors are constantly working on improving performance, power consumption, and price to enable greater adoption. Innovation continues in this area. In its hospitality suite, Microvision demoed some of its new products. The company showed a pico projector with a receiver that detects reflected light. Using a shiny pointer, one can touch an area on a projected image for interaction. Thus, it is a virtual touchscreen on a projection. Both TI and Microvision demoed heads up displays for future automotive applications.
Touch has become an important feature for many products, not just smartphones and tablets. More notebooks with touch are coming on the market to compete with these devices. New touch technology was presented at CES. Atmel has a touchscreen film that is flexible and can actually be rolled up. This allows it to conform to different surfaces such as kiosks with curved edges and the contours of a car's center console. Corning announced a more flexible Gorilla Glass. One can easily see how these two products can work together.
ST has a controller that can detect more than one finger, even a finger wearing a thick glove. One advantage is that the controller can detect a finger just hovering over the touchscreen without any touch. More gesture detection and eye-tracking technologies were featured in concept vehicles.
CES 2013 showcased many interesting devices and applications using sensors and MEMS. But this is just the beginning. As MEMS continue to be implemented, more innovation will occur.