Preview of Our Fabulous Keynotes at MEMS Executive Congress US 2012

By Karen Lightman, managing director, MEMS Industry Group

Recently I was talking with a MIG member about what was unique about this year’s Congress. I actually surprised myself when I instantly blurted out, “the keynotes!” Normally, I would talk about how cool the MEMS Technology Showcase is (and it is – really, it is!) And you’ll soon hear about it in an upcoming story/blog). But honestly, when I answer from my gut, I gotta go with my initial answer: this year’s fabulous keynotes.

Our opening keynote speaker is Ajith Amerasekera, TI Fellow, IEEE Fellow, Kilby Labs, Texas Instruments. Ajith was the director of Kilby Labs at TI, which he has described as a “do tank” rather than a “think tank.” I am grateful for the time that Ajith has taken from his super-busy schedule solving important challenges at TI to answer a few questions for me, give us a peek inside his brain and preview what he’ll be discussing in his keynote, “Ultra Low-Power Electronics in the Next Decade,” on the morning of November 8.

Ajith, with your vast experience at TI in the VLSI Design Labs, director of ASIC Technology Strategy, as well as the director of Kilby Labs, you’ve gained a great perspective of high tech and how it’s evolved since the 1980’s. So given your experience, how do you define the shift in electronic technology from centralized and high-touch to ubiquitous and low-touch, and what are the driving forces?

A. The shift is defined by a need for more localized intelligent electronic devices to control and manage our environment — from home automation to the smart grid.  Electronics are enabling us to be more efficient and productive. The ability to build more powerful devices at very low power and cost levels enables us to distribute and embed intelligence widely. TI is a major player in ultra-low power, high-performance, analog chips and embedded processors that are the heart of these new systems.

Thank you, Ajith. Can you expand on why low-power electronic devices are so important to distributing intelligence across applications in our personal lives, health, transportation, and safety and security?

A.  Power is critical to the operation of electronic devices.  The more devices used, the more power we need, and the more we need them to be power-efficient. There are also other factors in play such as power distribution and availability, battery management, etc.

Can you give me some examples, or are we primarily talking about evolutionary advancements in smartphones and tablets? 

A. We are talking about advancements in everything.  One example is in the infotainment system of an automobile, where the center auto console is controlled by gesture-sensing that can tell if the person interacting is the driver or passenger, thereby limiting distracting behavior (like checking Facebook) for the driver, but allowing it for the passenger. Another example is a project on which we are actively working: the realization of smart buildings, smart cities and smart transportation.  These projects require us to sense the environment and then optimize usage against resource availability.  Interactive sensing is also useful in wellness management, health management, fitness and sports.  Smartphones and tablets are just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of low-power applications that are changing our relationship with electronic devices.

That is fascinating and I can’t wait to hear more in your keynote, because I totally agree with you. But now I’ve gotta ask more about my favorite acronym, MEMS. What are your thoughts on how MEMS technology enables digital environments that adapt to and anticipate our needs? And where are the biggest potential impacts (positive and negative)?

A.  We need to be able to sense our environment.  And the key technology that helps us to do that is MEMS.  MEMS technology will enable us to recreate the five senses — touch, smell, hearing, sight, taste — and will give us the capability to anticipate and adapt our needs. As for impacts, the positive impacts are already visible in the way we interact with our phones and tablets, how our homes manage power usage — kitchen appliances for baking potatoes to energy efficient dishwashers, for example.  Negative impacts include security and safety, which arise when we rely so heavily on electronic technology.  However, I am confident that these challenges will be solved.

Wow – amazing. And then to top it off, we have an equally amazing keynote in the afternoon. As our closing keynote, I have invited Robert Brunner who is the founder, creative director and partner of Ammunition, where he communicates strategic innovation through product design, brand and surrounding experience.

What most impresses me about Robert is that when he’s working with the likes of Dr. Dre on his Beats’ brand of high-performance headphones and loudspeakers and the Barnes & Noble folks on their Nook, he is always thinking of the human hands that are going to use the end product. He truly understands that it’s not the gee-whiz of a technology that will determine the success of a product, but it’s the design and how it fits and works with the human — and the human hands that will make or break the next killer app.

I am equally grateful to Robert for sharing his brilliance with me and answering a few questions to preview his upcoming keynote. I asked him to tailor his keynote to my MEMS supply chain audience and push them to really think about where their products are ending up: in human hands.

Robert, what if we in the MEMS industry “build it and no one comes?” In other words, why is the user experience more important than component technology in creating the amazing product breakthroughs that change our world? What are a few examples?

A. While underlying technology is essential to providing a capability to the user, what people really care about is what it does, how it does it, how it feels and how it fits their lives.  So it might be a great breakthrough, but if it is not designed for the user in a way that is compelling and desirable, they won’t care and it will fail.  The iPhone is a perfect example of this.  There is tremendous development and technology behind what makes it function the way it does, but what people care about is how it delivers that total user experience.  It is why it’s such a successful a product.

Thank you, Robert. Following on that same line of thinking, how can technologists understand and value the user experience as much as they do the underlying technology within? Based on your experience working at Apple, what is the best piece of advice that you can impart to technologists working to create a breakthrough product that will be loved by the masses for its industrial design?

A. First of all, everybody is a designer.  That is, anywhere you are on the chain in delivering something into a user’s hands, you have a role in enabling an experience and should embrace this responsibility.  It is always important to work back from the ideal experience into the device, not the other way around.  If you let the technology drive the experience per se, you may end up with something that works, but is difficult, and does not connect with people. As the product is being developed, work with user-experience (UE) or design teams early to define and understand the ideal user scenario, then activate that as a tool to shape the functionality and capabilities of the technology and device. It is truly about an insurance policy for success.

Again — fantastic and practical all at the same time. So how can I take this “to the street” as it were? How can MEMS device manufacturers increase the perceived value of their products to customers? How about to end-users? (Will there ever be a campaign for the ‘gyro inside,’ for example?)

A. Well, this is tricky, as it has to be real.  You cannot simply brand something around an ideal unless you have the technology and capability to support it.  “Intel Inside” was quite successful as they managed to communicate it as a sort of quality ideal (and forced manufacturers to put the tag on their products!)  But today, I think people are suspicious of this unless it goes with an actual capability that is valuable to them.  If you successfully embody a user-centric approach to realizing a capability and can define its value to people, then finding a way to succinctly and emotionally communicate this to people can be huge!

We put this into practice with Beats Audio.  We built a brand around an emotional connection to music with our Beats’ products, then licensed the underlying algorithm and DSP to other companies, and allowed them to carry the Beats Audio brand on their products.  The Beats’ symbol carries an emotional meaning with regard to reproducing modern music, so it has value for people that they are willing to buy.  If we had not created that value in how people connect to the products’ functionality, it would be meaningless.

Well I hope you are as enthralled with these two guys as I am and will join me for our eighth annual MEMS Executive Congress keynotes:

  • Thursday, November 8, 2012, 4:15-5:00 p.m. for “Ideas, Not Objects,” with an introduction by Mike Rosa, MEMS global product manager, Applied Materials.

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