Design Challenges for Wearables

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in ecnmag

This holiday season, most of my friends/family received some form of wearable device as a gift. Even my 84-year-old dad is joining the wearable bandwagon and is finally giving himself what should probably be termed the original “wearable” — a hearing aid.

As executive director of MEMS Industry Group (MIG), the trade association advancing MEMS and sensors across global markets, I, too, have a sensors- and micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS)-laden wearable device that silently sits on my wrist and somewhat accurately counts my steps and tracks my sleeping habits. I long for the day when I can have a wearable that is seamless and elegant as it counts my calories (in and out), accurately assesses my health, and which harnesses energy from the vibrations created through my own movement.

So how far off is this wearable Utopia? To get a reading on what it takes to design wearables for consumer success, I asked a few of the experts in the MEMS/sensors supply chain who eat/sleep/pray in the wearable device tech world and will be joining me at MIG’s MEMS and sensors conference on wearables at the 2015 International CES on January 6.

Wearable devices represent one of the fastest-growing market segments in consumer electronics. They rely heavily on technology from the MEMS/sensors supply chain in order to track activity, interpret motion and augment reality. But designing for these space-constrained devices — which must be low power and increasingly packed with functionality (we’re way beyond just step-counting these days) — is not without its challenges.

Tim Saxe, CTO of QuickLogic, believes that “the top issues depend on whether the developer is thinking of a wearable device without a display or one with a display…For devices without a display, the top challenge is how to get really, really long battery life. The goal seems to be six months minimum, with one year preferred.”

Saxe elaborated that “for devices with a display, the challenge is control, and people want non-touch ways to control the device. How to make this ‘intuitive’ i.e. convenient, repeatable and easily discoverable, is an emerging area so people have lots of ideas and need to quickly try them out and refine them.” For me this brings visions of Google Glass vs. Jawbone UP vs. Apple iWatch: Everyone is placing bets on what form factor and design will win this race. And it reinforces my belief that for a wearable to be successful in the marketplace, the user needs to be unaware that he/she is actually wearing it.

Several folks pointed out that a key issue for wearables is that each time a user has to take them off or can’t use them is a chance for the user to lose interest. At this point, that device could “end up in the sock drawer,” said Dr. Steven LeBouef, president of Valencell.

Seppo Nissilä, CEO of SilverBlip shared with me his list of pain points, which include technical challenges. “Low-power and small form factor do not happen without many design rounds,” said Nissilä. He also called out a warning shot regarding validation/compatibility/IP challenges “that are often underestimated in small companies and big ones, too.”

When I asked David Allan, president of Virtuix, what keeps him up at night, he said, “In the MEMS field, the mobile phone is the ‘big boss.’ Yet most startups aren’t designing phones. When you try to design something different, like wearable motion sensors for virtual reality, you immediately hit a roadblock: the fusion software that comes free with sensor devices caters to the needs of the phone. It fails to capture complex translational and rotational motions that differ from typical phone applications. So you need to customize the fusion. But then, you find out that custom software costs maybe six or even seven figures to develop…and you’re stuck. We got lucky and found ex-InvenSense engineers to develop our fusion. But many startups, lacking contacts in the sensor industry, won’t know how to proceed. One encouraging development on this front: MIG’s open-source algorithm cooperative, the Accelerated Innovation Community (AIC), which includes an open-source C library for 3-, 6- and 9-axis sensor fusion.”

Becky Oh, board member of PNI Sensor Corporation, identified power consumption as one of the most pressing challenges of designing wearables. “As space-constrained devices, batteries must be as small as possible – so every microamp of power consumption is critical.”

And Oh believes that sensor fusion is a big part of the solution to the power issue. “Since these devices will use sensors for always-on monitoring, there need to be hardware and processors that are optimized specifically for sensors and sensor fusion algorithms, such as intelligent sensor hubs or sensor coprocessors. These sensor coprocessors have architectures that are optimized for sensor-related algorithms and interfaces, making them much lower power than a general purpose processor.

The second major challenge, according to Oh, is value added data analysis. “At the hardware level, capturing the raw data accurately is key, but in order to achieve this in the design phase, you need hardware development platforms that are form-factor ready — essentially requiring you to build the wearable before feasibility studies are completed.”

Valencell’s LeBoeuf had another major challenge in mind, one that relates closely to his company’s biometric sensor technology: “The advent of I2C MEMS and sensor solutions made our biometric signal extraction technology a lot more scalable for OEMs. But I2C optical sensor solutions were geared towards proximity detection — not biometric sensing. For this reason, additional microprocessor resources were required to make up for suboptimal sensing — draining battery life and limiting our market opportunities.”

LeBoeuf ultimately overcame this problem “by working with silicon solution providers early in the process, teaching them what changes needed to be made in order to keep accuracy high while maintaining high battery life.”

Though these challenges may seem insurmountable, on the bright side, it’s clear that my colleagues are well positioned to both name and address them. My guess is that in the next year or two, we’ll see some of those seamless, elegant wearable devices packed with functionality that I now dream of.

SEMICON West Wrap-Up

Chivonne & Monica say, "Thanks for a great time at SEMICON West!"

Chivonne & Monica say, “Thanks for a great time at SEMICON West!”

Two weeks ago, MIG had a wonderful time at SEMICON West, participating in a variety of constructive and gratifying industry-focused networking opportunities.  The Jam-packed event saw both MIG and its members engage in everything from demonstrations to cocktail receptions.

Over 30 member companies exhibited on the show floor, showing off their latest in equipment, materials, packaging solutions, design automation tools, foundry services, product development and R&D, while still more members busied themselves with private appointments off of the show floor.

MIG welcomed increased traffic at our booth, showing just how relevant MEMS has become, while reinforcing why an industry association is the key to connecting to partners to increase business opportunities. The MIG team enthusiastically spoke about the benefits of joining MEMS Industry Group while promoting our members to interested individuals.

SEMI hosted their traditional MEMS content entitled, “Next Generation MEMS”, on Tuesday, July 8th.  This content featured all MIG member and partner companies, including Yole Développement, Qulacomm, Silex Microsystems, GE Global Research, Si-Ware, SolMateS, NIST and EV Group. Shared content emphasized new challenges and opportunities for the MEMS supply chain to meet the needs of the expanding range of mobile devices, wearables and smart objects in the Internet of Things.

MIG also hosted its increasingly-popular cocktail party at Restaurant Lulu on Wednesday night, July 9th.  With over 300 people in attendance, it was THE place to be for MIG members to meet and network.

MIG would like to thank our Platinum Sponsor Plan Optik and Bronze Sponsors C2MI, Expertech and Oxford Instruments for making SEMICON West and the cocktail party possible. If you want to relive the memories or are curious about what you missed, be sure to check out photos from the event.

What’s Driving Wearables? MIG’s Karen Lightman Discusses in INNO Magazine


MIG’s very own Karen Lightman recently graced the front page of IVAM Microtechnology Network‘s INNO magazine with her thorough discussion of MEMS and wearables.  In the piece, Karen talks about the US’ disposition to focus on wearables technology, while other areas of the world spend their time and resources elsewhere, and how we’re backing these efforts with crowdfunding support.  To read Karen’s thoughts on this explosive industry, head to and download the pdf!

Trip Report: MEMS Industry Group at MD&M West 2014

by Monica Takacs, Director of Membership, MEMS Industry Group

February 2014, MEMS Industry Group (MIG) exhibited at the MD&M West conference and tradeshow in Anaheim, CA with MIG members AM Fitzgerald & Associates, IMT – Innovative Micro Technology and Silex Microsystems as our co-exhibitors. Our host for the microtechnology pavilion was IVAM Microtechnology Network, one of our 26 partner organizations, and it featured international companies involved in the manufacturing of MEMS, sensors and printed electronics for the medical device industry.

Medical device manufacturers have quickly noticed MEMS as a viable solution to include in their multi-functional next-generation products. With MEMS steadily making its way into more medical applications, MIG is creating opportunities for our members to connect with the medical device community. In addition to attending and creating content for medical-device shows, we are launching members-only programming such as the MEMS in Healthcare Working Group, launched in the fall of 2013.

At MD&M West, MIG hosted a Learning Labs conference session, “Advanced Application of Sensors in Medical Devices,” with MIG Governing Council Member Alissa M. Fitzgerald, Ph.D., founder and managing member, A.M. Fitzgerald & Associates, LLC as the chair. A panel of MIG members IMT – Innovative Micro Technology, Merit Sensor, Silex Microsystems and Small Tech Consulting also participated in the panel discussion, “Utilizing new sensor technologies for implantable devices.” 

12815955115_6038d32e2f_nThe panel discussed the MEMS ecosystem and advised medical-device companies on navigating the opportunities and challenges of MEMS product development. Counseling companies not to reinvent the wheel, panelists explained that they can leverage partner relationships to overcome the technical challenges of MEMS fabrication.

They also described the evolution of the MEMS industry over the last 10 years from a landscape of startup companies to Fortune 500 and even 100 companies now including MEMS in their product roadmaps. Michael Shillinger, founder of IMT remarked that the majority of IMT’s customer base is now made up of large companies rather than startups. Moderator Leslie Field, CEO of Small Tech Consulting, remarked how development cycles aren’t what they used to be, which has led to the ubiquity of MEMS.

Kevin Mach, senior account manager of Silex Microsystems cited the critical role of MEMS foundries in the massive adoption of MEMS over the last decade: “Companies planning to get into the medical/life science space need to reach out to MEMS foundries early and often. It’s important to understand what options are available in manufacturing and to leverage the technical expertise gained from years of MEMS processing. In our experience, customers that take the time to understand the capabilities and limitations of their partners tend to be successful long-term.”

Rick Russell, president of Merit Sensor, encouraged attendees to design MEMS for packaging, particularly with regard to implantables, which require lots of capital and are a challenge due to FDA regulations. Alissa Fitzgerald added that MEMS packaging for implantables is an opportunity for innovation and patents. Because MEMS is heading in the direction of commoditization, the value add is the packaging of the chip into the product, said Fitzgerald.

MIG members on the panel had their own takeaways:

“I was very impressed by the number of people who attended the panel, said Russell. “The overwhelming response showed me that innovators are eager to adopt more MEMS devices to help diagnose your physical state, whether it be your heart rate during a medical procedure or simply sharing your daily activity level on social media. The number of companies adopting MEMS for wearable devices (noninvasive) has exploded, but those that require FDA approval (invasive) are much slower to market but have a higher long-term reward.”

“I was excited to see so many people in the audience already aware of MEMS and thinking about how to use them in their products,” said Fitzgerald. “We need to have more interactions like this between medical device innovators and the MEMS industry. The more we can learn about each other’s needs and capabilities, the faster we’ll see exciting new medical products emerge.”

Listen to moderator Leslie Field discuss all of the key takeaways of the panel below. 

Elsewhere on the show floor, MIG members were scattered throughout. Interlink Electronics showcased their force sensing technology, COTO Technology presented their RedRock MEMS Switch, which was awarded 2013 Product of the Year (MEMS category), by Electronic Products magazine, and Merit Sensor demoed their BP Series Blood Pressure Medical Sensor.

See both the Merit and Coto Technology product demos below.

Karen’s blog from SEMICON West 2012

Where is the Love?

Has the romance between the MEMS and semiconductor industries started to fizzle? Or is the real issue that for new equipment vendors, the appeal and shiny/sexy new-ness of MEMS has faded as they salivate in anticipation of a switch from 300 to 450mm (with all of that sexy, new and expensive semiconductor equipment)?

In 2011, I declared that it was the “the year of MEMS” at SEMICON West in my MEMSblog, because last year, MEMS was everywhere! This year, not so much…

Don’t get me wrong; I love going to SEMICON West. I keep coming back because it’s like homecoming. I can’t walk the halls of Moscone without bumping into dozens of colleagues and MEMS Industry Group (MIG) members. This year it was even more fun, because I was armed with hundreds of adorable MIG stickers that I emblazoned/bedazzled on every MIG member (and future member) I saw.

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A Peek Inside the Invensense ITG-3200 Three-Axis Gyroscope

Contributed by St.J. Dixon-Warren and R. Krishnamurthy, Chipworks

Invensense is a leader in the MEMS gyroscope market segment. According to Yole, they experienced nearly 500% growth 2009 over 2008. They now hold the #1 position in the MEMS gyroscope for consumer electronics market.

Chipworks recent had a look inside their new three-axis digital gyroscope, the ITG-3200. The device is built using the Nasiri, single-chip, MEMS process, where the MEMS layer is sandwiched between a fusion-bonded cap wafer and the ASIC. The ASIC and MEMS are bonded using eutectic metal bond. The SEM image in Figure 1 provides a tilt-view of the corner of the MEMS chip, where the MEMS layer can be seen between the cap and ASIC die.

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MIG visits Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan

Contributed by Karen Lightman, Managing Director, MEMS Industry Group

My journey through Japan continued with a trip up to Sendai (which is 96 minutes north of Tokyo by Shinkansen), at the invitation of Professor Esashi-sensai at Tohoku University. Takeo Oita-san of NDK accompanied me at my visit to Sendai.  We were greeted at the station by Katou Hiroyuki –san and Ms. Emi Ooba, both with the Commercialization Support Sub-section, Industrial-Academic Collaboration Promotion Section, Economic Affairs Bureau, Sendai City.  Their focus is to promote Sendai as the “best location” for R&D. Along with their director, Hiroyuki Miyata, I was very humbled and impressed with their hospitality and graciousness. Continue reading