The market for sensor hubs - dedicated processing elements used for low-power sensor processing tasks - is forecast to surpass 1.0 billion units in 2015, rising to nearly 2.0 billion in 2018, driven by the smartphone market, reported IHS Inc. The “booming” market is being spurred by “always-on” sensor processing and battery limitations, according to the market researcher.
The move from discrete microcontrollers (MCUs) to sensor hubs integrated into the application processor (AP) in high-end smartphones is driving growth, led by the iPhone 6S, said IHS. “Samsung, Apple and Motorola have already been using sensor hubs in their smartphones for a number of years, and Apple, Motorola and Microsoft explicitly advertise their use of sensor hubs or sensor cores in certain smartphones,” according to the IHS MEMS & Sensors for Consumer and Mobile Intelligence Service.
“The sensor hub market is incredibly dynamic, changing rapidly over the last two years, due in large part to Apple’s iPhones,” said Marwan Boustany, senior analyst for IHS Technology, in a statement. “When Apple shifted from a discrete microcontroller to an integrated application-processor-based solution for the iPhone 6S line in 2015, it signaled to other manufacturers that this approach had reached maturity.”
“AP-sensor hubs will increasingly dominate the midrange to high-end smartphone segments in the next few years,” Boustany added. “Samsung is also testing alternative approaches to sensor hubs using a Global-Navigation-Satellite-System-integrated sensor hub from Broadcom in its Note 4 and S6 smartphones. We also expect to see sensor hubs that are integrated in the sensor package to make inroads in smartphones, especially in the midrange and low-end segments.”
Boustany expects that as more AP sensor hubs are implemented the market share for MCU and other discrete sensor hubs will fall. However, he expects wearables devices, which require long battery life in small packaging, will continue to require discrete MCUs and FPGAs.
Yet, Boustany noted that “Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 400 and other AP sensor hubs have also begun to penetrate the wearable-device market.”
“Apple has chosen to use a discrete MCU in the first-generation Apple Watch, but the company may follow its handset strategy and integrate the sensor hub into its custom application processor in later generations,” he added. “Smartwatches will likely follow trends seen in the smartphone segment, but with a higher penetration of MCUs than smartphones, due to tighter power-saving requirements.”
Sensor manufacturers are answering the call. Bosch Sensortec, for example, recently launched a new generation of accelerometers that deliver embedded intelligence for next-generation smartphones and wearables. The intelligent features deliver several benefits – extended battery time, lower power consumption, and improved user experience.
The new Bosch Sensortec three-axis accelerometers – the BMA422 and BMA455 – claim to be the first to integrate embedded intelligence into standalone accelerometers. This is said to minimize power consumption and eliminate the need to wake up the AP or an additional discrete sensor hub. “Overall system power management and user experience can be improved by the accelerometer detecting and processing motions such as glance, pick-up and tilt,” said the company.
The new devices are all housed in small packages. The BMA422 measures 2.0 x 2.0 x 0.95 mm³, while the BMA455 is 2.0 x 2.0 x 0.65 mm³.