Sensors have long played key roles on mobile platforms, but a fundamental improvement in their operating parameters suggests big changes are afoot. Last month, a number of new mobile phones entered the market, distinguished by their always-on sensor functionality. In the past, these sensors were turned off periodically to avoid draining precious battery power and to free up the main processor as much as possible. Now, with the introduction of additional technology, that's all changing, and this shift promises to usher in a raft of new features and applications.
The debut of the iPhone 5s, with its fingerprint-scan authentication, is a game changer. It's significant not because it introduces this type of security technology into the consumer sector, but because it represents a tipping point for widespread use of biometric sensors in consumer electronics. Five years from now, you will be able to look back and see the significance of this product upgrade. It may take a little longer, however, to determine whether this development merits celebration or concern.
Despite all the hype, commercialization of nanosensors is largely unfulfilled. Many of the potential beneficiaries have held back from adopting the technology and are waiting for proof that the nanodevices can be produced cost-effectively and function as promised under real-world conditions. According to Frost & Sullivan's report "Advances in Nanosensors", this wait-and-see environment is delaying commercialization and the emergence of sensor markets that leverage the technology's promise of "smaller, more sensitive, faster-responding, and less costly sensors." If you look hard enough, however, you can see signs that things are changing.
Cutting-edge fabrication processes, new materials, and nanoscale architectures are redefining sensor technology. In the drive to achieve greater miniaturization and new levels of performance, researchers are pushing the envelop of sensing with technologies like 3D printing and materials such as graphene, nanotubes, and photocurable resins. The problem is that, in the rush to introduce and commercialize the next disruptive technology, they don't always wait until they know the full ramifications of the innovations they are introducing.
Look around, and you'll see people using all manner of sensor-enabled devices to monitor a growing number of facets of their personal lives. Whether it's a simple pedometer or a trendy Fitbit, practioners of the "quantified self" are measuring everything from what they eat and how much they exercise to their emotional state. The goal is to improve how they function in their daily lives.
Increasingly, the sensors empowering the smart devices of the Internet of Things will bear little resemblance to the sensors of the past. Advances in miniaturization, integration, and material science are pushing the limits of sensitivity, space, and cost that define where and how sensors can be used and what functions they can perform.
Technologies like Google Glass and Pebble draw everyone's attention, and as the latest-and-greatest technologies vie for attention, market watchers try to determine which has the most influence or the greatest value. Looking at technology this way, however, is too myopic. It misses the key fact that technologies increase in value through their synergy with other technologies. In fact, the synergy is the source of their greatest value.
Since mobile devices have become firmly established in everyday life, a growing number of electronics have moved one step closer to interfacing with users in an up-close-and-personal way, like Google Glass and Pebble. Paralleling this trend is the growing role of sensing technology in these platforms.
This month, Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing, one of China's leading foundries, placed an order for an SPTS Omega c2L Rapier etch system, advanced technology used to manufacture MEMS sensors. This purchase reflects a trend in which China's sensor providers are investing heavily in R&D and manufacturing infrastructure to cultivate the ability to develop and manufacture high-end MEMS sensors and associated electronic components.
Industrial wireless sensor networking has had a tough row to hoe from the very beginning, despite the significant benefits it brings. Unfortunately, sizable barriers still prevent the technology from reaching its full potential.