There's a rapid push to give tech something were born with: senses


Any product that can be connected to a network is also being given the ability to sense our environment.

This kind of technology is increasingly aware of everything around us. It measures temperature, orientation and direction, light, pressure, vibrations, noise, and -- eventually -- it will be able to mimic the sense of smell.

And, thanks to the Internet of Things, sensing technology will soon become pervasive at home and in the office.

Most people are already familiar with some of the capabilities of sensing technology, such as the accelerometer used in a smartphone. It detects changes in orientation and is responsible for rotating a screen.

The accelerometer is a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensor, one of many types of MEMS-based sensors.

Market research firm HIS iSuppli said the number of MEMS units, which includes accelerometers, gyroscopes, microphones, pressure-based, motion and temperature sensors, will increase at a rate of 20% a year through 2017. It expects that nearly 10.8 billion MEMS units will be shipped this year, with that number rising to 17.15 billion in 2017.

"The market is truly driven by consumer and mobile applications," said Jeremie Bouchaud, an analyst at iSuppli.

MEMS has "become the link that lets the technology be more fully integrated into the world," said John Chong, director of product engineering at Kionix, a MEMS producer in Ithaca, NY. Its facility, which employs between 250 and 300 people, designs and fabricates the sensors.

MEMS sensors are the basis of much of the sensor technology being integrated in modern devices and are a complementary technology to integrated circuits. Manufacturers such as Kionix are using similar tools and fabrication processes to produce them.

"This allows MEMS to follow the same development trajectory of integrated circuits, continually becoming smaller, cheaper and better," said Chong.

MEMS can also be easily paired with integrated circuits.

"Together, they become a more complete system, with the integrated circuit functioning as the brains while the MEMS function as the senses - sight, sound, feeling, etc.," said Chong. "So, now all of a sudden a device doesn't need buttons pressed or a human to feed it data to know what's happening around it.

"An integrated circuit paired with MEMS sensors becomes a device that can sense the environment, or something about itself, whether it's orientation or motion," said Chong.

The sophistication of sensing technology overall is increasing. IBM predicts that computers will eventually be able to relay a sense of touch, through vibration, so well that users will be able to feel differences in various fabrics remotely. Sensors with the capability of analyzing odors might be able to predict illnesses by detecting abnormal smells.

The MEMS-based sensors in use today typically have two components inside, an application specific integrated circuit, or ASIC, and a MEMS chip, which is the physical component that interacts with the environment. The two are connected and placed in a package that can be extremely small -- 2mm. And as time goes by, the size will shrink.

Shrinking components in the MEMS world has its complications. An accelerometer is just a mass on a spring that can detect motion. The more mass you have, the more motion. "The smaller we make our devices, the better our technology has to be to detect that internal motion," said Chong.

Although some degree of programming of an ASIC is possible, it is hardwired to do something specific, Chong said. In contrast, an ARM microprocessor is a general purpose integrated circuit used to execute software instructions. Because an ASIC's role is very narrowly focused, it's more efficient, meaning it can be smaller use less power and run faster than a microprocessor.

Because each has its benefits, some sensors are designed with an ARM processor, an ASIC and a MEMS, to add flexibility and programmability to the microprocessor while retaining the efficiency of the ASIC.

The smartphone, which has driven demand for MEMS sensors, acts as an application platform for sensing devices. For instance, all a pedometer maker needs is an accelerometer, battery and a Bluetooth radio to communicate with the smartphone. The phone allows manufacturers to concentrate on the function they want to deliver, without having to worry about displays and extra buttons, said Chong.

That is an approach taken by Zepp Labs, for instance. It uses accelerometers and gyroscope sensors for baseball, tennis and golf equipment that can record multiple actions, such as speed of swing. That information is sent via Bluetooth to a smartphone application.

The growth of MEMS technology tracks with Internet of Things spending. IDC estimates that the worldwide Internet of Things market will grow from $5.4 trillion in 2013 to $7.3 trillion by 2017, or 7.9% a year. Any vendor that makes a device that can be automated with minimal human intervention has a play in that market, said Scott Tiazkun, an analyst at IDC.

The fastest growing Internet of Things market, at 11.3% a year through 2017, is the public sector, according to IDC.

The Internet of Things business case for municipal managers is often clear. For instance, the city of Glendale, Ariz., put in sensor-enabled street lighting with sensors that connect to the cellular network. When a light fails, the city is notified. Consequently, only a tiny percentage of its nearly 10,000 street lights are out at any given time.

Previously, the city relied on calls from residents and inspections by city workers to determine lighting needs. With the light monitoring network, "the accountability is much better and that's what I think the public is demanding from government services," said Michael Sills-Trausch, who manages the city's street lighting program.

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