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Sensor Technologies Will Drive the Next Digital Age

Nov. 22, 2017
The explosive growth of interconnected devices makes sensors indispensable and integral in digital ecosystems.

The next phase of digital transformation has arrived, and it reaches to the far edges of the networks, with connections to billions of devices and objects collecting and transmitting data from ever-evolving sensors.

This new wave of innovation extends digital intelligence beyond dedicated devices such PCs, tablets, and smartphones. If an object has some kind of electrical power, it can be a smart, connected node in the Internet of Things (IoT) or within any number of autonomous systems such as connected cars, wearable technologies, and smart buildings and cities.

Many consider this phenomenon to be fundamentally digital. After all, the IoT is a network that enables billions of data points to be aggregated in the cloud, then processed and analyzed by sophisticated software. But at the very core of these changes are sensors—the ubiquitous devices that measure and represent physical phenomena such as light, heat, motion, and sound, and anchoring the 1s and 0s of the digital network in the real world.

While sensors have existed in one form or another since before the silicon chip was invented, today’s sensors are evolving at a faster rate than ever to support the proliferation of billions of new devices. New sensing technology is enabling innovative applications, such as 3D optical-sensing technology for consumer and mobile applications, time-of-flight (ToF) measurement for reliable camera autofocusing and image correction, high-end machine vision for Industry 4.0 operations, high-resolution imaging for medical diagnostics, self-regulating buildings, autonomous vehicles, and always-on personal health monitors.

Mastering the Implementation of the Entire Sensor System

With sensor technology quickly evolving for deployment in everything from lighting fixtures, clothing, food packaging, and even inside the human body or embedded in the skin, they must meet some challenging new requirements:

  • Extreme miniaturization
  • Ultra-low power consumption
  • Capability to interface with networks
  • Application-ready signal or data outputs

Furthermore, these next-generation sensors must be suited for use by manufacturers of “things” of all types, including light bulbs, drug-delivery devices, door locks, meters, as well as traditionally electronic devices. In many cases, manufacturers are seeking more than a basic sensor’s varying capacitance, resistance, or output voltage. They want application-ready sensor systems that can easily be connected to networks and interfaced to processors or a paired host such as a smartphone.

These high-performance sensors designed for digital transformation typically are comprised of three separate technology layers:

  • The core sensor layer provides an electrical representation of a real-world phenomenon, such as domains including imaging, optical, environmental, or audio.
  • The miniaturization and integration layer provides a chip-scale or modular (multichip package) implementation in silicon of the core sensing technology. This layer also provides the algorithms that convert raw sensor measurements into a linear signal streams for use by a processor.
  • The system technology layer is software embedded in the sensor that provides a connection to common networks like Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi technologies. Sensor system software also supports end-user applications, such as converting optical sensor signals in a smart wristband into a measurement of heartbeats-per-minute.

In next-generation sensor systems, each of the layers includes hardware and software elements and is provided in a single packaged device shipped to end-product manufacturers. These tiny, connected sensors, which are easy to integrate into applications, are critical for the continued proliferation of these devices.

Breaking Performance Boundaries

The digital transformation is not simply a question of embedding more sensors into more types of devices. Transformation is also occurring because sensor manufacturers such as ams are breaking the boundaries of sensor performance. These breakthroughs are enabling product manufacturers to dramatically improve the user experience, or even to create wholly new and previously impossible experiences.

Below are examples of how the radical changes in sensor operation are enabling new applications:

New XYZ color sensor chips for mobile phones, tablets, and laptops “see” the color of light in exactly the same way as does the human eye, mimicking the response curve of the eye’s red, green, and blue “tri-stimulus” light receptors. With color sensor chips, a new generation of paper-like displays, which have a much more natural appearance than existing mobile device displays, are possible. Alongside these color sensors, ultra-high sensitivity proximity (infrared) sensors enable the display to be built with no aperture on the front surface.

Multi-spectral and hyper-spectral sensor ICs are a laboratory-grade spectrometer-on-chip. Using them, accurate food-color inspection and harvest analysis will be possible for the first time in the field. Mobile color analysis will also transform inspection and quality processes in factories and hospitals, thanks to spectral sensor chips. CMOS image sensors are also finding important uses in industrial applications, including machine vision.

Active noise cancellation (ANC) is being implemented in innovative audio headset designs with integrated sensor/amplifier solutions. Headset manufacturers for the first time are building ANC capability into in-ear headphones and wireless headphones thanks to the small size and low-power consumption of ANC devices.

3D imaging systems-on-a-chip promise to transform virtual- and augmented-reality applications, as well as enable much improved gesture sensing, face scanning, and 3D modeling. New solutions draw on innovations in laser emitter design, optical packaging, and structured light sensing.

Sustainability and the environment are important applications for advanced sensing technology, ranging from ultra-accurate flow sensors for metering, to gas sensors-on-a-chip for indoor air-quality monitoring, to high-resolution angular position sensors used in new high-efficiency electric motors.

Medical diagnostics and monitoring are enabled by ultra-accurate digital imaging devices for computed tomography for hospitals, and equally by miniature optical sensing systems-on-a-chip—small enough for a fitness wristband—for measuring heart rate and blood oxygen levels.

Sensors at the Heart of the Digital Transformation

In the PC era, the major innovations in electronics products were largely driven by advances in digital- and graphics-processing technology. Today, though, sensor systems are at least as important in enabling new use cases of existing product types, improved user experiences, and even wholly new device types.

Only in very recent times has it been possible to place a heart monitor in a wristband that a person can wear 24/7, to enable color analysis 60X more sensitive than the human eye in a small, handheld instrument, or to provide ambient noise cancellation in a device so tiny that it fits in the ear. All of these breakthroughs are the result of new implementations of sensor technology.

What comes next? The next phase involves shaping the world with sensor solutions, by creating new core sensing technologies, developing algorithms that make sense of sensor data, and building application-ready devices that OEMs can implement easily in end products. Today’s digital transformation is only just beginning—and sensors will be at the heart of the coming waves of change.

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