Enabling a device to orient itself and respond to movement, MEMS gyroscopes have produced the next big technological splash: touch-triggered screens. This is what gives devices like the iPhone their interactive edge. Many manufacturers in the Silicon Valley have switched from conventional microchips to MEMS production, and gyroscopes are poised to be one of the best performers in years to come.
Companies like InvenSense of Santa Clara have devoted themselves entirely to fabricating dual-axis gyroscopes that integrate with handheld devices in order to give them that special something.InvenSense’s gyroscopes don’t just end up in your palm pilot, however.
They’ve also been used for years in places like video game controllers, where a good gyroscope can give the player more natural control—this is what made the Wii so revolutionary, and it continues to sweep the industry as more and more video game companies switch to controllers that operate based on players’ body movements. Microscopic MEMS technology made that possible.
Digital cameras can also benefit from MEMS gyroscope integration; it allows the camera to sense when it is being turned in order to modify the screen from a landscape to a portrait layout. Motion-sensing MEMS technology is equally well suited to the development of applications like the face-location or smile-location device. The MEMS sensor implanted in these cameras makes it possible for them to perform “smart” functions and will probably lead to the integration of digital cameras with touch-screen devices at some point in the near future.
InvenSense has almost reached their personal goal of establishing an inertial measurement unit, otherwise known as an IMU, which will need only a single chip to function. It is anticipated that this IMU will engender the next generation of consumer electronics; they will be packed full of rich features, graphics, and sound; and thanks to refined MEMS technology they will also have advanced motion-sensing capabilities that allow even the vibrations of a human voice to trigger their performance. As they seek to mass-manufacture MEMS gyroscopes and single-chip IMUs, InvenSense expects to reach a point where they can market these sensitive devices for less than a dollar per axis.
This would make it much more attractive for electronics manufacturers to regularly incorporate motion-sensing technology into their handheld devices and would thereby render them much more common in everyday life. Soon, MEMS gyroscopes and their motion-sensor counterparts will be the standard by which we judge handheld consumer electronics, not the high-end exception as they currently seem to be.
Researchers, investors, and manufacturers can all see the way the market is going. InvenSense has protected its personal MEMS designs with no less than 12 patents that cover everything from wafer integration to packaging. This only goes to show how seriously MEMS technology could impact the economy if handled correctly.
Advertisers and marketing agents stand to gain an equally large share from the burgeoning nanotechnology field and its sister enterprises; if the cash flow that attended the iPhone’s debut is any indication, public reception of even better “smart” devices will be overwhelming.
InvenSense is working to make that dream a reality with their patented manufacturing system, which integrates two very low-cost X-axis and Y-axis MEMS gyroscopes in order to not only simplify but also reduce costs associated with the production process typically needed for gyroscopes of any kind.
They can combine these gyroscopes on a single chip, making it easier for the main electronics manufacturer to then install the technology into their devices. In its own small way, this innovation is just as striking as Henry Ford’s assembly line—it has equally important implications for those involved in this industry.
Such a breakthrough has led InvenSense in a whole new direction. Whereas before their work was focused on the computing side of delicate electronics manufacturing, now they are getting more involved in the nuts and bolts of the operation so as to upgrade their production efficiency.
Company leaders have transferred much of their production energy to a high-output MEMS foundry that can create thousands of MEMS gyroscope sensors alongside other essential consumer electronics devices, all on the surface of a single 6-inch silicon wafer.
Their research and development teams are hard at work on continually shrinking the size of this wafer as well as integrating applications and functions performed by electronics hardware so that every day one device can be used to do the work of two, thereby taking up less space on the chip and reducing the eventual size of the end product. And as we all know, if there’s anything consumers typically want out of their handheld electronics, it tends to be a consistently smaller and sleeker design that still delivers an increase in functionality.
What does this mean for the typical consumer? If you are at all familiar with the Nintendo Wii gaming system, you can expect to be equally shocked by the coming upgrade to systems like that one. People were surprised and overjoyed to find a new level of movement in the Wii controller, but the fact remains that the Wii still has its limitations and has left much room for improvement.
By Christmas 2009 it is anticipated that gaming systems and similar electronics will be completely controller-free, so that the player will have to do nothing more than stand in front of their television and move their body to play a video game. And of course as the technology improves, players will be able to move farther and farther away from the gaming device and still have a superior level of control. Researchers expect to incorporate voice and gesture recognition into a variety of consumer devices from recreational to business functions; they are also working to integrate various technologies so that eventually one portable device will do the work of many.
Wait a few years and you may find that the same machine that acts as your laptop is also your iPod, Palm Pilot, Nintendo gaming system, phone, and car stereo rolled into one. With MEMS technology on the rise, anything is possible.