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OUTLOOK 2018 – The explosive growth of inter-connected devices makes sensors an integral part of digital ecosystems

Pierre Laboisse, executive vice president, sales and marketing

The world is entering a new phase of digital transformation. Earlier phases saw digital technology transform the workplace as PCs became ubiquitous, then people’s personal and social lives as the smartphone put a powerful microcomputer in their hand.

Now, a new wave of innovation is extending digital intelligence beyond computing products into billions of internet-connected devices. In this new Internet of Things (IoT) connected world, a device can become a smart connected node and information from these clients can be shared effortlessly.

It is common to think of this phenomenon as fundamentally digital; after all, the IoT is a network which enables data from billions of points to be aggregated in the cloud, then processed and analysed by sophisticated software. In fact, this expansive use of data is not confined to the cloud; cars, personal health devices and buildings are becoming intelligent and often autonomous systems which make use of today’s incredibly powerful microprocessors.

But another change is taking place in parallel with this digital transformation: sensors are becoming ubiquitous, capturing information such as light, heat, motion and sound, and sharing this digital data of 1s and 0s across the digital network in the real world.


“Sensor manufacturers, with ams at the forefront, are breaking the boundaries of sensor performance. This is enabling product manufacturers to dramatically improve the user experience, or even to create wholly new experiences that were never before possible.”

Pierre Laboisse

Of course, sensors and their data existed in one form or another for years before the integrated circuit was invented. But sensor technology is now evolving faster than ever to support the proliferation of sensors to billions of new devices. New technologies are enabling innovative applications, such as: 3D optical sensing for consumer and mobile applications and augmented reality; ToF (Time of Flight) measurement for reliable camera autofocussing 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.

The ubiquity of sensors changes everything. If connected sensors are to be deployed in everything – in lighting fixtures, in clothing, in food packaging, even inside the human body or embedded under the skin – then they have to meet several challenging requirements:
  • extreme miniaturisation
  • ultra-low power consumption
  • provision of a network interface
  • application-ready signal or data outputs

And the new generation of sensors must be suited to use by manufacturers of ‘smart devices’ of all types, including objects such as light bulbs, drug delivery devices and door locks, as well as traditionally electronic devices. In many of these applications, the manufacturer is looking for more than a basic sensor’s varying capacitance, resistance or output voltage: it wants an application-ready sensor system which can be connected to a network and interfaced to a processor or low energy Bluetooth paired host.

The sensor of tomorrow, then, will typically have three separate layers of technology:

  • a core sensor layer – the means by which a real-world phenomenon is represented electrically. Sensors from ams operate in one of four domains: imaging, optical, environmental or audio.
  • a miniaturisation and integration layer – this provides a chip-scale or modular (multi-chip package) implementation in silicon of the core sensing technology. This layer also provides the algorithms which convert raw sensor measurements into a linearised signal stream that a processor can use.
  • a system technology layer – software embedded in the sensor which provides a connection to common networks such as Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi technologies. Sensor system software also supports end-user applications, for instance to convert optical sensor signals in a smart wristband into a measurement of heart rate.

In next-generation sensor systems, all three layers, which include hardware and software elements, will be provided in a single packaged device shipped to the end product manufacturer. Miniaturised, easily connected and supporting easy application integration, these characteristics will be key to the proliferation of sensors.

Breaking the boundaries
The digital transformation is not simply a question of embedding more sensors in more types of device; transformation is also occurring because sensor manufacturers, with ams at the forefront, are breaking the boundaries of sensor performance. This is enabling product manufacturers to dramatically improve the user experience, or even to create wholly new experiences that were never before possible.

This radical change in sensor operation is illustrated by some examples of new applications enabled by breakthrough ams sensors.

New tri-stimulus high-accuracy XYZ colour sensor chips for mobile phones, tablets and laptops are capable of measuring (or ‘seeing’) the colour of light in exactly the same way as the human eye. Colour is really a ‘human-eye relative perception’; we do not perceive colours as an absolute because colour is not fixed. This can be seen through the ams ‘paper-like’ display demonstration, in which our perception of colours viewed is altered due to a dynamic relationship between an object’s surface, the lighting environment and our eyes.

The accuracy of this colour sensor enables ‘paper-like’ viewing displays which have a much more aesthetically pleasing appearance and are less strenuous to view than existing mobile device displays.

Multi-spectral and hyper-spectral sensor ICs are miniaturised laboratory-grade spectrometers-on-chip. For the first time, the freshness of a fruit may be gauged through spectroscopy, measuring the spectral fingerprint obtained by shining light off it. The light reflected from the molecular vibrations, in conjunction with an algorithm, enable an ams sensor to decipher an object’s composition. Mobile colour analysis will also transform inspection and quality processes in factories and hospitals, thanks to ams spectral sensor chips. CMOS image sensors are also finding important uses in industrial applications such as machine vision.

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

3D imaging SoCs promise to transform virtual reality and augmented reality applications, as well as much improved gesture sensing, face scanning and 3D modelling. New ams solutions draw on innovations in laser emitter design, optical packaging and structured light sensing.

Sustainability and the environment are important applications for advanced ams sensing technology, ranging from ultra-accurate flow sensors for metering to gas sensors-on-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-chip – small enough for a fitness wristband – for measuring heart rate and blood oxygen levels.

Sensors at the heart
During the PC era, major innovations in electronics were largely driven by Moore’s Law, with steady advances in digital processing and graphics processing technology. Today, 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 recently has it been possible to place a heart monitor in a wristband that a person can wear 24/7, to enable colour analysis 60 times more sensitive than the human eye in a small, handheld instrument, or to provide ambient noise cancellation in a device so tiny it fits in the ear. All these breakthroughs are the result of new implementations of sensor technology.

ams intends to lead the drive to shape 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.

The digital transformation has only just begun – and sensors will be at the heart of the coming waves of change and will be the drivers of today’s and tomorrow’s mega trends.

ams

ams is a global leader in the design and manufacture of advanced sensor solutions. Our mission is to shape the world with sensor solutions by providing a seamless interface between humans and technology.

ams’ high-performance sensor solutions drive applications requiring small form factor, low power, highest sensitivity and multi-sensor integration. Products include sensor solutions, sensor ICs, interfaces and related software for consumer, communications, industrial, medical, and automotive markets.

With headquarters in Austria, ams employs more than 8000 people globally and serves more than 8000 customers.

Author
Pierre Laboisse

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