It’s weird and conceptually difficult to think about size limitations in smartphones. After all, the numbers involved in making them are nearly impossible to think about. For example, a typical processing chip for a smartphone, say the iPhone 6, has over a billion transistors (the physical component that allows it to “think”). A billion of anything is ridiculously huge; one billion dollar bills would be a stack nearly 70 miles high. Once we get into numbers like that, it moves, for us laypeople, into the realm of the near-metaphysical; the ideas of limitations seem like saying a wizard can fall through the earth and live, but he can’t tie his shoe.
Still, there are physical limitations to what a smartphone can do, and we are beginning to run into those limitations. The problem is that we are increasing our need not just for computational power, but for signal. We do so much with our smartphones that it is increasingly hard to maintain a signal infrastructure to support everything we do. That has nothing to do with tower strength, but instead with how much your individual phone can literally physically handle. Luckily, there are new, and very old-fashioned, ways that problem can be solved. Electro-mechanical systems are becoming viable for smartphones, and San Jose’s Cavendish Kinetics is leading the way.
The Limitations of Current Smartphones
Cavendish Kinetics, a San Jose-based company, is on the front lines of pioneering new radio frequency micro-electro-mechanical systems (RF MEMS, or simply MEMS). This is a mouthful, and sounds very high tech on the surface, but these are basically tiny antennas.
We still tend to think of antennas as long metal sticks, and some of us remember when cell phones had long antennas that you had to pull out. It actually felt pretty official and kind of cool, like you were a spy unfolding the latest gadgetry. Those started to become less ubiquitous, and I think we forgot that antennas existed. They never actually left, though; they just sort of transformed. Antennas are now interior, and electronic, in the form of micro chips. They pick up a signal and can process it throughout the smartphone or tablet. Their invention was a huge step forward.
Unfortunately, there is a limit to what these chips can do, and how much they can handle. Think of everything you need signal for. Think of the (possibly) hundreds of apps you use, the calendar, the alarms, the texts and tweets and pictures. You use signal all day, every day, and for an increasing number of things. Our smartphones can hold incredible amounts of information and perform amazing amounts of services, but there is only so much signal they can take in. In receiving signal, they are essentially radios, and they are running out of dial.
The problem with this is that as 4G becomes the standard and we start to move toward 5G, there needs to be greater capability. For many in the industry, this has meant putting another radio chip or otherwise increasing device size. That seemed to be the only way to add more features and services. Unfortunately, growing phones again, making them thicker, is not something customers are looking for. Hybrid “phablets” are still thin, but undeniably bigger. So the industry was on the horns of dilemma.
Antennas and Smartphones: The Importance of MEMS
That’s where RF MEMS come in. This is actually an old technology. MEMS have been around for over 40 years, and of course the principle behind them is even older. A typical RF MEMS device is mechanical, in a way that our smartphones aren’t. These are still microscopic devices, but they are designed in a way that they can adjust, pick up different signals, and move between frequencies to send alternate streams of signal into a device. In essence, they are a gate that swings open in a few different places.
Like I said, this technology is old, but no one had figured out until now how to make it microscopic enough to work with modern communications. Cavendish has, which is one of the reasons it raised $36 million in the last round of funding. Investors are realizing that the next wave of smartphones and mobile devices needs to figure out a way to incorporate more signal without loss, and without increasing device size.
Cavendish has proven that they can handle the size challenge, and in tests they passed the other big obstacle: wearing out. Don’t forget these are mechanical, and mechanical devices tend to slow down. But Cavendish announced earlier this year that their tuner system passed a 100 billion cycle test, which makes it virtually limitless (don’t forget, a billion is, scientifically, a real whopper number).
The implications of this are amazing, and potentially industry-transforming. Not only can smartphones and tablets continue to get smaller while doing more, but other devices, like our wearables, can get smaller and more convenient. Microsensors that truly measure health can be everywhere, and able to receive and transmit signals to a phone or computer, so that you don’t have to carry everything with you while working out. Internal biometric systems become more and more possible. It could even make augmented reality, with technology housed in a pair of glasses or contacts, easier and more efficient.
The quest for the perfect mobile device has always been about making gargantuan possibilities endlessly microscopic. It’s a testament to the creativity of the industry that the next great wave is thanks to repurposed technology from the 1970s.