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MEMS and Sensors

Environment and Health Sensors in Smartphones Set for Mighty Growth

21 August 2013

First came microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) sensors that automatically adjusted the orientation of a cellphone’s display no matter how it was held. Then arrived optical sensors for delivering better color and proximity detection. Now the third wave is about to break, with sensors that monitor environmental and health conditions bound for spectacular growth, according to the latest MEMS report from information and analytics provider IHS.

Sensors measuring conditions such as humidity, body fat, stress levels or body temperature will be used increasingly in smartphones as the devices expand functionalities even further. Global revenue for the sensors geared toward environment and health monitoring will soar to nearly $400 million in 2017, up from less than $2 million in 2012—a gigantic leap by any yardstick. This year alone, revenue is set to reach $82 million, with yearly growth for the next four years exceeding 35 percent.

Handset and sensor makers have been asking themselves “what’s next” in MEMS sensors for the last two years after two waves of auspicious implementation in handsets. Now with MEMS-based environment and health sensors, the next trend promises to stir excitement, especially because many new interesting uses could come about that are currently beyond the reach of existing apps.

The first groundswell for MEMS sensors began with accelerometers in 2007 after the introduction of the iPhone and its intuitive auto-screen rotation. Electronic compasses and gyroscopes also were added in short order after accelerometers to help with indoor navigation, gaming and motion handling.

The second wave for MEMS sensors came in the form of ambient and proximity light sensors, which help adjust color balance in images and detect a user’s presence to automatically disable a handset’s touch screen when the device is held close to the face.

Now with humidity and temperature sensors built into phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4, the sensors can systematically monitor a variety of conditions aimed at helping track one’s health or the particular states of the environment surrounding the user. Moreover, specific accessories—such as third-party blood-glucose monitors, heart-rate monitors and body scales—can be used with the smartphone to extend the scope and field of observation.

From here, a leap to even more high-minded usage for the sensors in smartphones is not unwarranted. Imagine, for instance, handsets able to detect the presence of noxious gases, or detecting if tap water is safe, or warning people of the level of pollen and fine particulates in the air. Such can be the lofty purview of the third wave of MEMS-based environment and health sensors, IHS believes.

Undoubtedly, such sensors represent more of a technology push rather than a market pull or demand. Humidity sensors arrived before gas sensors, for instance, because they were available at the right price and the appropriate package size, and also consumed power at low levels—all of them important characteristics for inclusion in a small device like a smartphone.

Even so, the potential for environment and health sensors is vast and largely untapped at the moment. And if the sensors are used not individually but in combination with user data entered either through the Web or manually, entirely new ecosystems of usage could come about from the sensors, similar to Samsung’s current S Health applications.

Among companies, Sensirion AG of Switzerland has been shipping a few million humidity sensors to Fujitsu handsets in Japan and some Chinese handset makers since 2010, and is now shipping in high volume to Samsung for the Galaxy S4.

For its part, French-Italian maker STMicroelectronics has announced developments in metal-oxide gas sensors for handsets, following in the footsteps of Germany-based AppliedSensor and SGX Sensortech of the United Kingdom for automotive air-quality applications.

Swiss diagnostics firm Lifewatch is also shipping the Lifewatch V smartphone in low volumes beginning this summer for Israel, China and some European countries. The phone include s a thermopile for body temperature, along with an electrical sensor for body fat and stress, a blood-glucose monitor and a pulse oxymeter.

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