You can observe a lot by just sensing

CES for years has been the show with TVs and DVD players, photography gear, PCs, audio equipment, electronic toys, and more recently smartphones and tablets. This year felt a lot different – pun intended – as sensing came front and center, and consumers are taking notice.

Microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, enable creation of tiny structures on a semiconductor chip, such as vibrating plates providing a gyroscopic effect. MEMS sensors aren’t new, but are hitting new levels of package integration as commercialization and adoption in mainstream devices take hold, and the concepts of sensor fusion and context awareness are now getting a lot of attention.

MEMS gyroscopes are inexpensive – roughly speaking, $1 per axis in significant volumes – and small. While not quite as precise as their larger cousins like the fiber optic gyroscope, they bring impressive capability into the reach of consumer handheld or wearable electronics. Here’s a sample of MEMS parts announced at CES 2013.

  • InvenSense announced their MPU-9250, a 9-axis – gyroscope, accelerometer, and compass – motion tracking device in a 3mm x 3mm x 1mm package.
  • Kionix introduced a thinner 3 axis accelerometer, the KXCJA, in a 3mm x 3mm x 0.7mm package.
  • Xsens – the company behind 3D motion tracking for many films – demonstrated their technology for placing sensors on many points of a body, embedded in clothing.
  • Bosch introduced several devices, including the BNO055, a 9-axis sensor in a larger 5.0 mm x 4.0mm package but including an ARM Cortex-M3 microcontroller inside.

Those last two illustrate new trends. Sensor fusion was the buzzword in defense circles in the late 1980s, but now has been resurrected in consumer device circles for the same reasons as earlier. Creating an integrated picture of motion from a lot of data collected from multiple sensors observing parameters in different modes, connected to intelligence via a mobile app for the user, is now the frontier for designers.

Context awareness is also in vogue, with MEMS sensors able to assist in difficult applications such as indoor navigation and personal activity tracking. The Bosch team mentioned they are looking at integrating pressure sensors and detecting patterns in steps such as stair climbing to be able to detect a change in floors inside a building. These are non-trivial applications that require new combinations of sensing and intelligence, without blowing up the size and power consumption of a mobile device.

For instance, the folks at LUMOback were at the show. I first saw them at the USC Body Computing Conference in 2011, and they’ve come a long way since then. Their sensor is in a band worn around the lower back, similar to how popular heart rate monitors are worn around the upper torso. They connect to a smartphone with Bluetooth, where an app computes and tracks posture including a friendly visualization via the LUMO character. The band vibrates slightly when improper posture is assumed for too long.

The other intriguing consumer device coming soon is the Basis health tracker. This wrist-worn device has four different sensors: blood flow, accelerometer, perspiration, and skin temperature. It is also backed by an app, revealing habits in normal activity, sleep, and exercise, and it adds a deeper element of gamification with incentives to change long-term activity for a more healthy lifestyle.

The connection between MEMS sensors and mHealth is deep, but the innovations coming from new parts utilizing more intelligence and sensor fusion in many applications will drive the next generation of consumer devices. What have you seen as a useful device integrating motion sensor technology? How does the ability to integrate sensors with mobile device apps change things for you? Share your ideas in the comments.

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