Are these tiny chips the next big thing?

Written by Neil Roberts

Sand 9/RedsharkSand 9's MEMS resonator

The next wave of technology is based around tiny chips called "MEMS" - Micro Electro Mechanical Systems. These are the tiny gyroscopes, compasses and inertial sensors that are now standard in many smartphones and other electronic devices

MEMS are tiny chips with nano scale electromechanical components that let the chip keep track of motion, acceleration and rotation. They include the solid state gyroscopes that tell your smartphone which way up it is and they even help your inkjet printer know where its print head is before it fires a nanolitre sized drop of ink at the paper.

There are now many more types of MEMS chips being developed and they promise to open up even more possibilities for future devices. So much so that the market for MEMS devices is growing faster than the semiconductor market. 

Here are just some of the areas where MEMS are bringing improved performance to our electronic devices.

Adaptive Tuning

As we hold our smartphones our hands and our heads affect the way that signals reach the handset. New MEMS chips are continuosly retuning the receivers to allow for better connections to voice and data services. WiSpry Inc. of Irvine, Calif., was the first to market MEMS RF antenna tuning components to mobile phone makers - using IBM Microelectronics as its foundry partner - but in 2013 a new competitor entered the fray. Cavendish Kinetics B.V. of the Netherlands unveiled its adaptive tuning chips, claiming it can adaptively tune LTE antennas to prevent dropped calls. 

This technology could also have great benefits for the transmission of wireless audio and video, with the MEMS chips constantly retuning to make sure the cleanest signal is received.

MEMS Microphones 

Some of the microphones in smartphones are also based on MEMS technology. The iPhone 5 was one of the first smartphones with support for wideband voice, with Sprint in the US the first to support it, but by this time next year nearly every carrier worldwide is aiming to support the crystal clear sounds of HD audio. To meet that growing demand for wideband handsets, Akustica Inc of Pittsburgh has announced a whole line of MEMS microphones that facilitate HD audio in any smartphone, tablet, or other mobile device.

These tiny devices have far greater frequency response than standard microphone technologies and will almost certainly start to appear in professional audio gear too.

Timing 

One of the things that is crucial for almost all electronic devices is timing. Timing chips measure time incredibly accurately and allow synchronisation of data streams and measurement of time differences, such as those used to calculate position based on the signals from GPS satellites. Typically timing references were derived from crystal oscillators, the little silver cans present on many circuit boards, but these can now be replaced with MEMS chips which are hundreds of times smaller. Sand 9 Inc of Cambridge Mass have developed sub-millimeter MEMS resonators, which it predicts will enable a new era of thinner, lighter, better-performing mobile handsets.


Digital Compasses 

Keeping track of position and orientation has become crucial for the latest generation of gadgets with MEMS compasses, gyroscopes and motion sensors helping to keep track of the movement and orientation of our smartphones and even our cars. STMicroelectronics have introduced what it claims is the world's smallest six-axis digital compass. Measuring just 2 x 2 mm, it houses both a three-axis magnetometer and a three-axis accelerometer, allowing even mobile devices like smartwatches to keep track of where they are.

By building these into cameras or even the lens we could record the motion and rotation of the camera along with the shot, eliminating the need for motion tracking and camera solving analysis in post production.

Motion Tracking 

It's not just our shots that get the benefit of MEMS tracking. MEMS are at the heart of many of the new health tracking systems such as Nike's Fuelband. By measuring the amount of movement we make every day we can build up a picture of our physical health and help us to measure the amount of exercise we do. This in turn can help to motivate us to exercise more and lead a healthier life.

MEMS are also being incorporated into tiny medical devices like implantable blood pressure monitors and insulin pumps, so MEMS might even help us live longer.

One thing is certain, these tiny chips are going to be everywhere and it's just a case of figuring out how we can use them to improve how we live and work. 

Tags: Technology

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