Interestingly, sleep researchers are the University of California at Berkeley claim that, by itself, an Apple iPhone has enough built-in sensor sensitivity and resolution to monitor your sleep from under your mattress. In this way, wearable bands from companies like Jawbone, Fitbit and a variety of smartwatches could be redundant.
While Apple has likely worked its sensor vendors pretty hard, especially on pricing, I’m not aware of any recent breakthroughs in the underlying technology.
There is on-going research in MEMS sensor manufacturing, intended to reduce dependency on bulk chemical etching. In the manufacturing of MEMS, you are typically digging a trench or a tunnel or a hole in silicon — a cavity for micro-miniature moving parts to move around in — and then sealing the hole against moisture and other environmental contaminants.
MEMs companies such as InvenSense and mCube have come up with interesting ways of doing this. To date, Apple has used parts from Bosch, InvenSense and STMicroelectronics. In any case, the goal here is to reduce costs by eliminating manufacturing steps. It does not fundamentally change what the sensor does. And, with the proliferation of MEMS specialty fabs, this a problem Apple probably does not need to solve with its own R&D facility.
More interesting problems with RF MEMS may call for a prototype factory. Increasing the number of insertion cycles for miniature antenna switches might represent a challenge for Apple’s engineers, but it’s a 20-year old problem with initial R&D funded by DARPA in 1996. If anyone can get RF MEMS off the ground, analyst Tony Massimini of Semico seemed to imply in one report, it could be Apple. And this facility may be the place to do it.
We suspect there may be other sensor challenges the company is looking at. For example, Apple might be interested in research on the high-resolution gas and chemical sensors using spectrometry or other wavelength sensing semiconductors.
There are plenty of established and emerging sensors to explore. Among other possibilities are pulse oximeters, already used in the Apple Watch, skin hydration sensors and EKG probes. One company is developing immiscible semiconductors that can read the chemical composition of liquids on a molecular level, and another has an infrared spectrometer provides molecular-level analysis of foods, medicines, and fuels.
While the success of these devices will likely depend on specially-tuned semiconductor manufacturing, it is hard to tell how much Apple will participate in their development. Applications interfaces like iHealth make it easy for sensor developers to attach their devices to the iPhone. But there remains a question as to what extent the company participates in the development of these attachments. This is a very big question, as Apple could be the driver for a lot of analog product development.
About the author
Stephan Ohr is Consultant, Semiconductor Industry Analyst.