There's a rapid push to give tech something we're born with: senses

MEMS, a sensing technology that links the electronic world to our physical world, is key to the Internet of Things

Any product that can be connected to a network is also being given the ability to sense our environment.

This kind of technology is increasingly aware of everything around us. It measures temperature, orientation and direction, light, pressure, vibrations, noise, and -- eventually -- it will be able to mimic the sense of smell.

And, thanks to the Internet of Things, sensing technology will soon become pervasive at home and in the office.

Most people are already familiar with some of the capabilities of sensing technology, such as the accelerometer used in a smartphone. It detects changes in orientation and is responsible for rotating a screen.

The accelerometer is a microelectromechanical system (MEMS) sensor, one of many types of MEMS-based sensors.

Market research firm HIS iSuppli said the number of MEMS units, which includes accelerometers, gyroscopes, microphones, pressure-based, motion and temperature sensors, will increase at a rate of 20% a year through 2017. It expects that nearly 10.8 billion MEMS units will be shipped this year, with that number rising to 17.15 billion in 2017.

"The market is truly driven by consumer and mobile applications," said Jeremie Bouchaud, an analyst at iSuppli.

MEMS has "become the link that lets the technology be more fully integrated into the world," said John Chong, director of product engineering at Kionix, a MEMS producer in Ithaca, NY. Its facility, which employs between 250 and 300 people, designs and fabricates the sensors.

MEMS sensors are the basis of much of the sensor technology being integrated in modern devices and are a complementary technology to integrated circuits. Manufacturers such as Kionix are using similar tools and fabrication processes to produce them.

"This allows MEMS to follow the same development trajectory of integrated circuits, continually becoming smaller, cheaper and better," said Chong.

MEMS can also be easily paired with integrated circuits.

"Together, they become a more complete system, with the integrated circuit functioning as the brains while the MEMS function as the senses - sight, sound, feeling, etc.," said Chong. "So, now all of a sudden a device doesn't need buttons pressed or a human to feed it data to know what's happening around it.

"An integrated circuit paired with MEMS sensors becomes a device that can sense the environment, or something about itself, whether it's orientation or motion," said Chong.

The sophistication of sensing technology overall is increasing. IBM predicts that computers will eventually be able to relay a sense of touch, through vibration, so well that users will be able to feel differences in various fabrics remotely. Sensors with the capability of analyzing odors might be able to predict illnesses by detecting abnormal smells.

The MEMS-based sensors in use today typically have two components inside, an application specific integrated circuit, or ASIC, and a MEMS chip, which is the physical component that interacts with the environment. The two are connected and placed in a package that can be extremely small -- 2mm. And as time goes by, the size will shrink.

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