By Jeff Karoub
Small Times Staff Writer

Jan. 11, 2002 — More than 20 companies are showing off MEMS-enabled gadgets at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, according to one expert’s estimate.

While that’s still a small percentage of the 2,000 exhibitors amid 1.2 million square feet of exhibit space, it’s still a lot better than last year, when MEMS analyst Marlene Bourne counted only one: Texas Instruments.

“This show is interesting from a MEMS perspective,”


Once plugged into a Palm Pilot, the Motion
Sense Corp. device at top allows a user to
make the screen scroll or icons on it move by
tilting, rotating or flipping the PDA — like “gaming
without a joystick.” Pictured above is a portable
projector made possible by Texas Instruments’
micromirror arrays.
said Bourne, an analyst for Cahners In-Stat Group. “It’s definitely making inroads into consumer electronics, and we’re just starting to see the beginnings of it.”

Those beginnings include a host of home theater devices powered by micromirrors, a plug-in module that might make your Palm Pilot or mobile phone easier to use and a sensor-filled glove that could be handy for game playing or even flight simulation.

The gadgets also might help bring MEMS some recognition in the macro world by achieving small tech’s long-stated goal of enabling products to be faster, better and cheaper.

One of the most advanced examples is Texas Instruments’ Digital Light Processing technology. At this year’s show, nearly 20 companies showed more than 30 products based on TI’s micromirror arrays, including portable projectors as well as tabletop and projection TVs.

The MEMS inside the systems not only help make them truly portable in terms of size and weight, they also help boost the clarity and crispness of the picture, Bourne said.

Although the mirror arrays have been around since 1996 and already are used in products and roughly 40 movie theaters worldwide, she said this is the first year the technology has been marketed to consumers.

Last year, she said, portable projectors with DLP technology were at least $6,000; this year, a low-end model is $1,800. Big-screen TVs with DLP now are as low as $3,000; last year they were around $12,000.

“The consumer electronic industry is a very attractive segment but it is extremely price conscious,” she said. “Even with TI, despite the fact that it’s a better technology (than what’s currently available), the bottom line is cost.

“If it’s not cost-effective, it doesn’t matter.”

The cost reductions are gratifying and exciting for Larry Hornbeck, a TI fellow of DLP products and inventor of the technology. When it first came out, he knew some would pay the price for the image quality and drastically lower weight, but they wouldn’t be enough to make a dent in the market.

“The price is way down there where we’re going to have a much larger customer base,” he said.

New this year, Hornbeck said, are tabletop units for large-screen projection displays. At the show, Samsung showcased its 43-inch and 52-inch Tantus models.

“It has a large screen but is portable and can sit on a tabletop,” he said. “We have a form factor that is ideal in countries in Europe and Asia, where they don’t have the space we have in the American living room … for full-console rear projections units.”

Hornbeck said he is amazed by the growing list of applications for DLP technology, and how engineers keep finding ways to make it “lighter and brighter.”

“You don’t see a technology come and take market share simultaneously,” he said. “That’s the digital advantage.”

Such industry-rocking innovation is still a ways off for another MEMS device on display at the show, but it certainly scores some cool points early on with Bourne.

Motion Sense Corp. has made a plug-and-play chipset module with MEMS accelerometers and sensors designed for Palm Inc. and its line of personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Once plugged in, the device allows a user to make the screen scroll or icons on it move by tilting, rotating or flipping the PDA — like “gaming without a joystick,” she said.

Jeff Depew, Motion Sense’s president and chief executive, said the designs and prototypes are done and the firm is talking to potential distributors. The device, which could be on store shelves in about five months once a distribution deal is signed, is expected to cost $40-$50.

“As a gaming application, boy, it added an awful lot of fun to that,” Bourne said. “And if you have a database of 100 names in your PDA, it might be useful.”

Depew said the modules also could be handy with other handheld and wireless devices, once slots are built into them. Plugged into a mobile phone for instance, the device could let a caller look up a stored number, select it and dial just by moving the phone.

Bourne said she will have to wait and see how many uses the device has, but the early application seems to be more fun than functional.

Depew called the gaming application the device’s “Trojan horse,” but believes it has far greater utility.

“(Games) get people very used to the operation — it’s very easy to roll into things like mapping and using the address book,” he said.

“We’ve had it in the hands of people 5 to 70. They all immediately get it, and find it easy to use. They act like it’s not new, but they don’t comprehend how esoteric the technology is.”

Another technology catching Bourne’s eye was displayed by Essential Reality, which has developed a glove that works as a game controller.

The P5 Glove, which uses a variety of pressure and infrared sensors to detect movement, does not currently use small tech. But the firm told Bourne that MEMS likely will be integrated into the second-generation glove, slated for release early next year.

The next generation glove also might have applications far beyond fun and games: Bourne said that since Sept. 11, the company has talked to U.S. military and space officials about using the technology for flight simulations.

She said the glove was getting a great deal of attention at the show, which bodes well for MEMS in the future.

“The first-generation product is kind of clunky, and doesn’t have the finesse,” Bourne said. “Will MEMS help smooth out the rough edges? It’s hard to say, but it will be an awful lot of fun.”

Overall, Bourne said, the show revealed that MEMS has come a long way from the lab, but it will take a while before the small technology hits the big time. Still, that could happen as it finds more key applications in the consumer market.

“It’s all well and good to talk about the sensors and nozzles and mirror arrays per se,” she said. “But just as important, if not more so, is to talk about the applications we can find them in.”


Jeff Karoub [email protected] or call 734-528-6291.


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