Smartphones will soon know not only where you are but what floor of a building you're on, thanks to advances in MEMS technology, one of the quiet success stories of the consumer electronics industry.
MEMS, or microelectromechanical systems, are all over the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, though you might not know it unless someone told you. They've become a vital component in smartphones and tablets and are also used in printers, pico-projectors, digital cameras, microphones and hundreds of other products on the CES show floor.
MEMS are typically computer chips with a microprocessor and a sensor on board, for detecting movement, orientation and other changes in the surrounding environment.
The best known type is the accelerometer, used to detect motion in smartphones and tablets. It's what tells the device when to switch between landscape and portrait mode when it's rotated, among other uses.
Some smartphones also have a magnetometer, which acts as a tiny compass. When you click the triangle twice at the bottom left corner of a map on the iPhone, for example, it's what orients the map to the direction you're facing.
Next up are MEMS barometers, which will be common in smartphones in two to three years, predicted Frank Melzer, CEO of Bosch Sensortec, during a panel discussion of the MEMS industry at CES. The MEMS industry is hosting its first MEMS TechZone at CES this year.
The barometer devices detect tiny fluctuations in air pressure, which lets them calculate relative changes in altitude, such as when a person climbs a flight of stairs, he said. That will let smartphones know what floor people are on in a building, for example.
Services such as Google Maps have been adding interior plans for museums and shopping malls, so smartphones will soon be able to direct people to a particular shop or meeting room, Melzer said. MEMS barometers also help Global Positioning Systems to work inside buildings.
Also emerging are radio frequency MEMS for mobile communications. RF MEMS tweak the connection to a cellular base station to ensure a device is transmitting and receiving efficiently, which leads to fewer dropped calls and longer battery life, according to Jeff Hilbert, CEO and founder of RF MEMS company WiSpry.
"Most anything with an antenna can be improved with a MEMS," he said.
IHS iSuppli took apart the Samsung Focus Flash smartphone recently and found a WiSpry chip inside. It was the first known use of an RF MEMS device in a volume commercial product, the research firm said. IHS expects the RF MEMS industry to grow 200-fold through 2015, as more devices use the components.
MEMS aren't limited to smartphones. They've been used in automobiles for years, but their widespread use in portable electronics gear is relatively new, propelled by reductions in the cost, size and power consumption of the components, said Sten Stockmann, a vice president with Finnish MEMS company VTI Technologies.
That's caused rapid growth for the sector. Revenue from MEMS products hit $7.1 billion in 2010, up 22% from 2009, according to IHS.
MEMS are also used in tiny projectors that can be embedded in phones, called pico-projectors. The chips have tiny mirrors on the surface that adjust themselves to project the image, Melzer said. They're also used in digital cameras for image stabilisation.
Some see more novel uses ahead. Sensors eventually will get more processing power and be able to learn from their environment and react to it, Hilbert predicted.
"There's a possibility for massive customisation and personalisation," he said. "Think of clothes that can change colour or jewellery that can change its shape. Some call it nanotechnology, some call it MEMS, but the end result is you can have it your way."