Sensing the Future

Sensing the Future

So there you are in San Francisco. It's one o'clock in the afternoon, you're walking down the street and your mobile phone chirps. You look at it and it's an electronic coupon from Colonel Lee's Mongolian Barbecue. They know you've eaten there before, and you haven't been there recently, and they know you are in the neighborhood, so they say, "If you get in here, we'll give you a lunch special." That's how sensors are going to take over the marketplace.

The fact that MEMS is not a new technology underscores an important point about how each successive decade unfolds. What defines each decade is not a technology's invention, but rather a dramatic, favorable shift in price and performance that triggers a sudden burst in diffusion from lab to marketplace. Like MEMS, both the microprocessor and communications laser were "old" technologies from a research perspective by the time their respective decades began. The novelty was that the devices suddenly were cheap enough to put into ordinary products in the marketplace.

Here's another example—piezo materials. They're typically ceramics that give off an electrical charge when deformed and, conversely, deform when in the presence of an electrical field. Piezos are particularly useful as surface-mount sensors for measuring physical movement and stress in materials. But more important, piezos are useful not just for sensing, but for manipulating the analog world. This is the real significance of the sensor decade. These devices won't merely sense and observe. They will also interact with the physical world on our behalf.

A few years ago, K2 came out with a ski that had a piezo layer in it, creating a primitive "smart ski" that sensed ski chatter and then dampened it out by running electricity out of a sensor in the ski. Years ago, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology were engaged in a whimsical application of this—they created a piezo-augmented "smart guitar" that mimics the sound of a high-end traditional guitar at a much lower cost. All of this is bringing us to the point of creating new classes of "smart materials"—materials that actively sense and respond to the surrounding analog environment.

At our level, reality is analog. Computers are digital. And in a very important respect, digital is dead. The fast growth is in analog. Sensors suck up data in an analog environment, and then you've got to do a conversion so a computer can work on the data. We already know that there are certain classes of problems that are harder to solve in the digital space that are relatively more straightforward in the analog space. Therefore, we may see the rebirth of analog electronics big time—silicon-based analog electronics.

The impact of sensors will be as surprising in the decade ahead as microprocessors were in the 1980s and lasers in the 1990s. And the surprises will be additive because of new interaction among existing generations of technology, with some of the most interesting applications of sensing technology applied to dealing with current problems. It's still early, but in the future, society and business will be saturating the world with communications and information. The future is not going to be people talking to people; it's not going to be people accessing information. It's going to be about using machines to talk to other machines on behalf of people. That's where the growth is going to be. It's also why all of our assumptions about available bandwidth and how much bandwidth we need is wrong by orders of magnitude, once all of these machines start talking to each other.

We're not talking machines like, say, computers. We're talking about washing machines, cars, bank machines, appliances of all kinds, oatmeal in boxes tagged with sensors that tell the factory it's just been bought from the Costco in Novato, for example.

This article was originally published on 04-15-2002
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