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With annual cell phone sales now exceeding 1 billion, it's no wonder that suppliers of MEMS devices and nanomaterials are targeting such a lucrative market. While applications are still hit or miss (as well as hard to find), the way these technological approaches are being put to use is quite interesting.

May 17th, 2007

Spotlight on Cell Phones

As part of my weekly podcast, I have on ongoing listener's challenge in which I've asked people to come up with random items from everyday life and challenge me to find the MEMS or nanotech connection.

A recent challenge topic that came up was cell phones. For those of you within the MEMS and nanotechnology industries, it may seem like a really obvious application to address, but the general public is just starting to catch on. This is actually pretty important, because the consumer's reaction to the use of MEMS and nanotech in cell phones is what will ultimately drive sales here. So, the better the public understands and embraces these approaches, the better off industry will be.

Cell phones have long been targeted by MEMS suppliers as the ultimate end-use application. With some 1 billion handsets now sold on an annual basis, who can blame them? While more MEMS devices and nanomaterials are indeed finding their way into cell phones, it's not happening as quickly as many would like to think. Consider the fact that hundreds of new handset models are introduced each year; yet only handful at any given time over these past few years contain MEMS sensors.

This is partly due to the fact that it takes time to design-in these components, and quite frankly, handset manufacturers are still trying to determine which features consumers find most compelling. Plus, there are some competitive technologies giving MEMS a real run for their money, so the use of MEMS sensors isn't a sure thing by any means. At least for now; I expect that will certainly change over the next few years.

So, what role are MEMS and nanomaterials playing in cell phones?

It all started a few years back with an RF MEMS device called the FBAR duplexer from Avago Technologies. Today, most CDMA phones not only include this device, but MEMS filters as well. These components basically help cell phones work more efficiently as they switch between different cell phone bands and other internal functions. More recently, MEMS microphones have made their move into cell phones as a higher-quality replacement to older microphone technologies.

But what are really making news are MEMS accelerometers; and the way they're being put to use is quite interesting. You can use them to do things like, shake the phone to change MP3 tracks, adjust volume, or re-orient the screen from horizontal to vertical. More advanced features include gaming control (so your phone acts like a tiny, handheld Nintendo Wii), or counting your steps in pedometer mode. I'm especially curious about how these sensors may be useful as handsets continue to integrate functions such as gaming, music, mobile TV, and even the ability to watch movies.

In the meantime, nanomaterials are slowly finding their way into cell phones too. The real angle at this point is the use of OLEDs—organic light emitting displays. As I mentioned in my previous column, they're mostly used as a way to display a few lines of monochrome text, typically in a rich blue or green. And as with MEMS, the feature is found on just a handful of phones. So, if you have a flip or clamshell handset with an external display--that may very well be nanotechnology at work right in the palm of your hand.

This article is a transcript of the Bourne Report Podcast #44.

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© 2007 Bourne Research LLC. All rights reserved.

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