Disruptive technologies to drive semiconductor market

by Phil LoPiccolo, Editor-in-Chief, Solid State Technology

While many emerging technologies will update tried-and-true themes to propel the semiconductor market to new highs over the next few years, others will radically alter products as we know them and in some cases create entirely new applications, said Jim Feldhan, president of Semico Research, at the recent SEMI New England Breakfast meeting near Boston.

Among the “disruptive” technologies Feldhan cited included a novel “telekinetic” device that could revolutionize the way quadriplegics interact with the world. Dubbed “brain fingers,” the technology allows a user wearing a headband with three sensors to mentally control a wheelchair, computer, or artificial limbs. It also enhances performance of able-bodied users, he said, noting that pilots tested by Wright-Patterson Air Force Base were found to have 14% faster response times than they did with joysticks or other hand controls — an improvement that could significantly improve the survivability of jet fighters, he added.

On the transportation beat, several new hybrid technologies are being developed, including GM’s concept car called the Volt (see image above). “It will have a gasoline engine, but it won’t be connected to the drive train,” explained Feldhan. “You’ll drive it on electricity for the first 40 miles, and then the gasoline-powered generator will kick in to recharge the battery so the car will continue to run on electricity.” For those who drive approximately 60 miles/day, that translates into an estimated 150 miles per gallon. GM is trying to change its image to become “the green automotive supplier,” Feldhan noted, adding that there are a rapidly growing number of hybrid vehicles being introduced. Such promising claims are at the moment just that, promises — GM admits the battery technology for the Volt isn’t yet quite up to snuff, and other reports suggest that actual production by 2010 (or possibly later) is a likely scenario.

Feldhan also described other gas-saving electronic technologies, including displacement-on-demand devices to control the number of cylinders that fire, according to the load place on a vehicle’s engine; tire pressure monitors, which could improve gas mileage as well as vehicle safety; flex fuel vehicles; and electronic valves to improve efficiency.

“Inside the car, people want to take their entertainment with them and have the same experience as in their living room, so we’ll be seeing more mobile TV, in-car DVD, satellite radio, and mobile Internet,” Feldhan said. In fact, some 30% of car drivers under the age of 30 want Internet access in their car, he said, adding that Bluetooth is available in about 30% of new Infinity models, and about half of all new cars in the US offer a built-in iPod dock option.

Another potentially disruptive technology, introduced within the past few months, is the 3D mouse (see image below), which Feldhan said could change the notion of point-and-click. The ring-like device contains a tiny ultrasonic transmitter that sends a signal every 16ms to an array of five receivers. Software calculates the ring’s position in 3D space based on the time difference of arrival of the signal to the sensors, much the same way GPS systems work, so that the user can simply point at a computer screen to move the cursor and perform operations. This “MagicMouse,” created by students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, was picked by Popular Science as a top invention of 2007.

Another novel device designed to “untether the consumer from the computer,” said Feldhan, is a product from Agere called BluOnyx, which functions as a wireless portable media server. About the size of a credit card, the unit connects to the Internet either through a wired or wireless connection and downloads up to ~40GB of data, which can then be shared among other digital devices and displayed on mobile phones, PCs, or TVs.

Feldhan also pointed to the overall explosive growth in wireless technology, such as ultra-wideband (UWB), which can be used to connect printers, scanners, remote hard disk drives, digital cameras, and the like through a wireless hub; WiBree, which uses radio technology and requires only small “button” batteries like those found in hearing aids and sports heart monitors; Zigbee, an ultra low power mesh network that uses wireless sensors for residential and commercial building automation applications; WiMAX, a broadband network that Intel is pushing for broadband for notebook computers; and WiFi, which is expected to be enhanced in throughput and range beyond the latest versions of 802.11 a, b, and g already found in some 200 million chipsets in cell phones, notebook computers, and other devices. — P.L.


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