Design: July 2010 Archives

Just ahead of Apple’s launch of the iPhone 4, Carmelo Papa, general manager of STMicroelectronics’ industrial and multisegment sector, was bullish about a new market for the company. He declared that this year would be the dawn of the ‘era of the gyroscope’.

A few days later, Apple CEO Steve Jobs was demonstrating what the combination of an accelerometer and three-axis gyroscope could do in a mobile handset. ST made its own video for the company’s Field Trip, a series of presentations to financial analysts, to show how the gyro and accelerometer combination could be used to navigate through the streets of Venice - using dead reckoning where the signals from GPS satellites cannot be easily seen in narrow streets.

As ST is the only vendor claiming to make an integrated three-axis gyroscope, this is the one that is suspected to be inside the iPhone 4. Teardown experts such as Chipworks and TechInsights believe die markings confirm ST as the manufacturer.

Benedetto Vigna, head of ST’s MEMS division, claimed that the market for gyros in consumer will be three times bigger than that for similar sensors in automotive – where they are more widely used today for stabilisation control – by 2014.

Although the initial demonstrations revolve around games, Vigna said dead-reckoning calculations can make it possible to pinpoint a user’s location inside buildings such as shops and museums, narrowing location-based information to a rack of clothes or a museum exhibit.

Although it does not need all three axes, optical image stabilisation is another use for cameras and phones. Papa said applications for the MEMS gyro can go further, including vibration control in washing machines. “The potential market is huge,” he said.

According to Benedetto Vigna, the decision to make a three-axis gyro was taken quite late in the day in an indication of how integration and fast turnaround are becoming crucial in getting MEMS into high-volume consumer designs. “By the end of last year, we understood that the market was willing to move faster,” said, explaining that the company had been working on a two-axis design.

“On the 21st October, we put the first transistors on the layout. And you are now holding the product,” he said as he handed out tiny 4x4mm packages. “Because of the nimbleness of the team we now have a three-axis gyroscope.”