Before long now, it will become the norm to have detailed, indoor, 3D maps - accessible on your smartphone. Using intelligent software combined with sensing equipment, particularly with Microelectricomechanical Systems, the sort of tiny devices you find in smartphones, like accelerometers.
MEMS are often just milimetres in dimension which means they can be unintrusively placed pretty much anywhere. You name it - if there is a need for something to be sensored, they have an application. As components, they may not be as sexy as the latest Snapdragon chip, but they will also be crucial for building an intelligent world wherever precision is necessary.
Stefan Finkbeiner, CEO of Bosch Sensortec GmbH, sat down with TechEye for a chat. Bosch Sensortec, currently top in terms of revenue, we're told, is well placed in the market for a couple of reasons. It got into the market very early and its R&D is in-house, meaning it knows where it wants to go with its own designs. Because Bosch is not a microprocessor company, Finkbeiner said, all of them are potential partners for the company. Chances are, if you have one of the household name smartphones, it's almost certain to have Bosch equipment in there.
Though the more obvious applications right now are things like your phone understanding which way it's being held and miniature microphones, there are some pretty interesting possible use cases. For indoor mapping, Finkbeiner told us, "all the hardware is available and in the phones", whch high end phones often shipping with a pressure sensor. This means it is a software question, but detailed indoor maps will be available to the public. If a company thought it was a good idea, they could put MEMS in a shoe to measure certain factors. Or, Finkbeiner said, you could put MEMS on clothes: you would need power and an interface but they could also be put into a wristband, glasses, or other items of clothing and you'd "have very smart navigation that can communicate with your smartphones".
"A lot of them will go into smartphones but not just smartphones," Finkbeiner said. They could have applications in gaming, for example with an item to wear on your head, so the console would understand precisely which direction you're looking. On a bigger scale, this could extend to limbs. It would be possible to build MEMS into wearable items when driving a car, for example, a head display that keeps track of your line of sight.
"I'm sure a lot of cases will come up we don't even think about now," Finkbeiner said. There could be "security applications where you could tell when someone is opening a door and if it should be open - or on a window, even just with an accelerometer".
Due to their precision, the tiny devices can be applied to check for vital life signs. At the MEMS Industry Group's MEMS Congress last year, we heard from one professor who said MEMS could have an application in detecting early-onset Parkinson's disease, as they were able to pick up tremors that would otherwise go unnoticed.
As new products come out, there will be new applications, for example, the idea of a smart watch with no display could force new sensors or applications for existing sensors. Business wise, MEMS is worth a punt at the moment: with the upcoming hype that the Internet of Things - connectivity everywhere - will build, the mini machines could be found in almost every nook and cranny.
Some MEMS barely visible, magnified, next to a 2 euro coin.