As small as a grain of sand, the latest motion-sensor chips provide new opportunities for wearable electronics.

Wearables: Miniature Sensors Achieving More Precise Movement Analysis

They consume less energy and are much smaller: these are the differentiating features of the motion-sensor chips developed by Californian startup mCube. Also known as accelerometers, these chips can detect movement direction and speed by reading the physical motion of tiny components – known as micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) – on the chips. The company’s approach is to “keep it small and simple.” And these tiny components look set to take wearable devices to the next level. As mCube’s chips use less power than their larger rivals, the battery can now be made smaller without compromising autonomy. “Virtually anything in motion can benefit from mCube’s high-performance and low-power sensors,” claims mCube President and CEO Ben Lee.

More detailed data

In addition to smart watches and wristbands, Ben Lee is also looking at clothing, an area on which tech companies are increasingly focussing, a prime example being the prototype for a ‘smart’ T-shirt unveiled in May this year by leading chip-maker Intel. “You could embed [our chip] into your clothing so that you don’t even know it’s there,” says Lee. This could prove very useful as you could then measure your activity without having to wear an extra device. Moreover, mCube’s chips will enable you to wear a greater number of accelerometers in your clothes, which should help to obtain more detailed and relevant data. “You could put them in your golf shirt and pants, so immediately after you swing you can get an analysis on your smartphone,” suggests Lee. The functionality contained in wristbands and watches could also be extended to measuring sleep quality.

Substitute for gyroscopes

Another big advantage of the mCube chips is their very low price – in the range of 30 - 70 cents per unit depending on the model, compared with tens of dollars for more sophisticated components. Ben Lee argues that one implication of such tiny sensors is that in the not-too-distant future devices such as activity trackers could cost around $19 rather than the current $99. Moreover, claims the mCube boss, the new accelerometer is sensitive enough to be able to replace gyroscopes, which are very reliable, high performance and quite expensive widgets to be found nowadays in most mid and top-of-the-range smartphones. In fact, according to the company’s figures, close to 70 million of mCube’s sensors have already been shipped to electronics manufacturers in China for use in smartphones, as the cost structure of the cheaper models made there makes it unfeasible to equip them with gyroscopes.

By Jérôme Marin