MWC 2017: The Sensors and Components That Could Make Your Next Smart Phone Even Smarter

March 11, 2017 | By Michael J. Miller of

When I attend trade shows such as Mobile World Congress, I like to spend at least a little time checking out what the makers of the various components are up to. After all, in many cases it’s the various sensors and similar components that will tell us the features that may be in the next generation of smartphones. At this year’s show, I noticed components to enable features from improved positioning, to measuring your blood pressure, to checking air quality. Some of the sensors are simply improvements on already commonplace features, while others are new and may never become mainstream, but it’s interesting to see what could happen.

Looking first at features that are now more common, I talked with a number of companies that make accelerometers, gyroscopes, and similar sensors that enable our phones to tell us how many steps we’ve taken, etc. In general, these products are MEMS, or tiny electro-mechanical devices (as opposed to the standard transistors that make up most of the electronics in a device). Such technology is not only used in phones, but is often used in other devices, like wearables and drones.

Invensense talked about how it makes 3-axis accelerometers, 6-axis (which add a gyroscope), 9-axis (which add a compass), and other similar sensors. Some add a barometer to detect pressure, which is used for doing things like determining when you are climbing stairs. Its competitors include two much larger companies, ST and Bosch.

One interesting idea I heard from Invensense involves using a 9-axis accelerometer to augment GPS to improve function inside buildings, or to save battery by switching the GPS radio off. In addition, the firm showed an impressive electronic image stabilization solution to allow for smoother video capture.

Bosch was also showing 9-axis “absolute orientation” sensors, barometric pressure sensors, and integrated chips that measure pressure, humidity, and temperature. ST had many of the same concepts, but I was also intrigued by the idea of a MEMS-based speaker for earphones, instead of the conventional solutions.

Both ST and Hamamatsu had sensors for measuring distance, with the latter showing photonics-based devices for things such as time of flight image sensors and measuring blood flow.

Vkansee Fingerprint sensor
Another sensor we’ve grown accustomed to in current phones is the fingerprint scanner. Vkansee showed a fingerprint sensor working under glass that can be embedded in a screen. The company demonstrated this inside a Lenovo laptop, though technically one could imagine it in a phone or tablet as well.

I saw a similar concept from Synaptics at CES earlier this year.

But if these sensors were typical, some of the others were much more unusual.

I was intrigued a couple of years ago when I first saw Consumer Physics, which had developed SCiO, a molecular sensor that can analyze things such as food or drinks and measure a variety of characteristics like calories, fats, sugars, and proteins. Now working with Analog Devices, the company has developed a platform that can be integrated into a phone. At the show, it demonstrated the Changhong H2, which is due to be available shortly from the Chinese smartphone maker, and said that a “Tier 1” smartphone maker would be including its sensor in a phone in early 2018.

Leman Micro Devices showed a sensor that could be incorporated into a phone to measure your blood pressure, heart rate, blood oxygen and more. In a demo, you squeezed the knuckle of your finger against a sensor on the edge of the phone. The company said it had a major phone provider as an investor, and suggested the sensor could be in a phone next year.

Another interesting idea came from CrucialTec, which makes a wide variety of sensors, including fingerprint sensors. They showed some of those plus sensors for heart rate monitoring, non-contact thermometers, and a gas analyzer that can measure contaminants in the air. I could see where these could be quite useful, whether in a phone or a stand-alone device.

Again, we may or may not see these sensors in mainstream phones anytime soon, but they give us an idea of what kind of functions could be added to the phones of the future.