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Smartphones Need More Sensors to Truly Evolve

January 26, 2017

Sensor growth and innovation would transform smartphone experiences

Few fictional gadgets are as iconic as the Star Trek tricorder. These devices could sense environmental conditions and analyze data in the palm of the hand. Today, the smartphone you carry in your pocket is the embodiment of that science fiction concept. But it is reaching its limitations in achieving that technological nirvana. The physical limitations are a major barrier.  However, the industry behind miniaturized sensors and microscopic devices (MEMS – Micromechanical systems) is booming.  Meaning that new miniaturized advanced sensors are being developed and launched without an obvious mobile  platform. Ultimately its consumers who are missing out on experiencing another level of utility from their smartphones.  They are either forced to buy new devices to capitalize on new micro sensor advances that may help their health, well being, productivity, or convenience, or miss out. The progress to a simple and consumer friendly world of connectivity between products is dependent on more micro sensor technology being in smartphones.

How can new smartphones take advantage of innovative MEMS (Micromechanical Systems) & sensors if there’s no room left in the device hardware? What’s the best way to package all this technology, though? No one wants to carry around an entire backpack of different devices housing individual sensors.


Advances in the MEMS & Sensors

Microelectromechanical Systems (MEMS) are miniature devices comprising of integrated mechanical (levers, springs, deformable membranes, vibrating structures, etc.) and electrical (resistors, capacitors, inductors, etc.) components designed to sense their immediate or local environment. They may also perform some kind of controlled physical interaction based on sensing their immediate or local environment. Some well-known examples of MEMS-enabled functionality in everyday life are airbag deployment in automobiles; motion and orientation detection in smartphones; and blood pressure measurement in IV lines and catheters..

You may never have heard of them but they are everywhere and the industry is forecast to exceed $26 billion in size within a decade.  They are in household appliances, navigation devices, personal training devices.  They are in planes, cars, security systems, defense and missile systems.  In fact on average you car has 20 MEMS devices on it. They are in healthcare devices and enable diagnostics.  If you want a SMART home this will be powered by micro-sensors.  If you have a wearable device its more advanced functions are performed by sensors – for example heart rate and step tracking.

Over the past several decades MEMS researchers and developers have developed an extremely large number of micro-sensors for almost every possible application including: temperature, pressure, inertial forces, chemical species, magnetic fields, radiation, etc. Remarkably, performance of this mini machines have shown performances exceeding much larger devices. Advancements like gas sensors that can “sniff” the air to detect particulates and determine air quality mean many are eager to see more rapid and widespread sensor deployment.


The challenges of developing mobile MEMS applications

Smartphones naturally provide the perfect platform for deploying the MEMS industry’s sensors. Several of these sensors are fundamental to the entire “smartphone experience.” Some of them have been in smartphones for so long, like accelerometers, that we practically take them for granted these days. Light sensors detect when to dim the screen during calls and how brightly to illuminate the screen. Some phones even have sensors to measure your heart rate — an excellent application for fitness enthusiasts.

While these all provide utility, our phones could become even more powerful with the inclusion of new sensors as the industry develops them. Gathering the newest sensors into our handsets would create the opportunity for incredible MEMS applications, changing the way we work and experience the world.

Unfortunately, there are limitations which constrain our ability to develop phones with more MEMS. The problem breaks down in two ways. First is the issue of space. Real estate inside a phone’s hardware is at a premium even today, particularly since current smartphones move towards thinner phones. That leaves a lack of space for new systems.

This ties in to the second challenge, which is battery life. More advanced hardware requires a higher capacity battery to deliver acceptable usability; by necessity, these batteries are larger in size. This in turn also reduces the amount of space available for new sensor hardware. It puts device manufacturers and MEMS developers at the crossroads of a catch-22. These limitations could hamper innovation. What if you could remove those limits altogether, though?

The future of sensor technology: modularity

An emerging new product, the i-BLADES Smartcase, offers the ability to do just that. In fact, the Smartcase recently won the top prize in the MEMS & Sensors Technology Showcase for 2016. What makes this particular smartphone case so innovative? The answer lies in its incredible versatility and its potential to trigger a new wave of smartphone trends based on sensor tech.

With the Smartcase, i-BLADES has created a platform for MEMs developers to get their sensors quickly and directly onto the smartphone – via the phone case. This is because the Smartcase connects directly to the phone itself and allows users to snap-on new features that effectively upgrade the capabilities of your smartphone. Its modular design makes it quick to add sensors as attachments (“Smartblades”) that then attach directly to the Smartcase.

Consider the doors that could open. No longer constrained by the lack of space inside phones, we could easily equip ourselves with all kinds of new sensors to use in our daily lives. It doesn’t take much for one to imagine a doctor using a Smartcase-equipped phone fitted out with a variety of diagnostic sensors. Many other applications are possible, too, from fitness and health to even expanded IoT functionality. Imagine a phone that senses when your home is too warm and commands your thermostat to turn on the air conditioner. That’s just scratching the surface of the potential applications the i-BLADES Smartcase brings to the MEMS arena.

As smartphones continue to evolve, it’s important for them to be more than devices that allow us to keep in touch with one another. They should also put us in touch with the world around us — and an intersection with the MEMS industry is the perfect way to accomplish that. Despite the challenges, i-BLADES and its innovation in this area open the door for new and exciting sensor based experiences in the palm of your hand. The tricorder of yesterday’s science fiction could be the smartphone you slip into your pocket next year if it has a Smartcase.

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