Wearables, Hearables and Other Hot Techs To Watch in 2017
By Stacey Wegner, Jeongdong Choe and Ray Fontaine*
Where are the hot areas of change and development in technology in 2017? Here are what some of us analyzing the field see as the innovations on the leading edge:
Intelligent, Connected Devices
In 2016, wearables were extremely interesting mainly because there was so much uncertainty around whether or not the market will be viable. The year saw some truly low-cost smart and fitness devices, and some market surprises like Fitbit buying Pebble. The Apple Watch 2 was an improvement over the Watch 1. However, the Huawei watch is remarkably designed with a nice round face, and functional, making the decision on which smartwatch to buy difficult.
While wearables will remain intriguing, even more interesting to watch is the hearables market. Hearables can be as simple as ear buds and basic hearing aids or as complex as devices that correct and amplify sound, sync with wireless devices for virtually any application, and even measure biometric outputs. That’s just the beginning. New sensors being packed into small devices are bringing us devices with nearly 30 sensors per device. Our recent AirPod teardown sheds even more light on what’s happening in this area.
Another extremely interesting technology to watch is the rise of intelligent personal or family assistants. This market started with the introduction of the popular Alexa and Echo. Sony may release their assistant this year with more sure to follow. As far as timing, we will have to wait and see. One issue that needs to be addressed is data collection and usage vs. persona privacy in a manner similar to Vizio’s issues with the FTC. In addition, more changes are coming for artificial intelligence or assistants on mobile devices with Samsung announcing Bixby ahead of its G8 launch.
Of course there are a slew of IoT technologies to watch like the acceptance of Zigbee, Z-Wave, LoRa, and Bluetooth 5.0, all of which seem to be vying aggressively for consumer IoT/connected home market. Rumors are gaining strength around how the Samsung S8 will have Bluetooth 5, which could mean a new WiFi modem, from whom we are not certain. Samsung and Wisol have been aligned for a while, but it would be a big statement to see a Samsung/Wisol WiFi/Bluetooth modem design supporting a new technology like Bluetooth 5.0 in a flagship phone. Based on our knowledge of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, we don’t believe that Bluetooth 5.0 has to be declared for a product. If fact, it would almost seem as if the SiG is asking OEMs to not make a declaration of the Bluetooth 5 in the device.
Last year was an exciting one for smartphone cameras, which should be considered as one of the biggest hardware differentiators between mobile handset platforms. Dual camera systems have reached the mainstream and are forecasted to drive growth for CMOS image sensor IDMs and foundries. Samsung introduced full chip Dual Pixels implemented in chips from its team and from Sony. Each Dual Pixel photosite is available as an autofocus (AF) point, and this complements traditional contrast AF methods and the emerging laser + time-of-flight (ToF) systems.
In 2017, ToF is expected to be a key differentiator in mobile platforms, both for AF and for new 3D/ranging functionality. Sony has introduced first generation direct bond interconnect (DBI) as a through silicon via (TSV) replacement and we expect tighter pitch DBI and eventually full chip active DBI going forward. On the image signal processor (ISP) side we are seeing a big push to lower nodes (28 nm ISPs are the state-of-the-art for high end stacked CIS chips). The flexibility offered by chip stacking should lead to new and disruptive partnerships between CMOS image sensor specialists and mixed signal advanced CMOS specialists.
We also expect new entrants to the digital imaging and sensing landscape. Machine vision, robotics, ranging, surveillance/security, and automotive vision and sensing applications are all positioned for growth due to enabling functionality and continued performance gains. It’s certainly an exciting time for all involved in designing and fabricating imaging and sensing pixel arrays and camera systems!
Last year virtually every vendor, device manufacturers, R&D engineer and market analyst we talked to was focused on DRAM and NAND technology roadmaps. We still talk to clients today who are focused on the future of these technologies. Today, 32L and 48L 3D NAND products are common and all the NAND players are eager to develop the next generation 3D NAND products such as 64L and 128L or even more. We found that 3D NAND is a kind of revolution for memory devices, and because of it, big data or data center, SSD/SD and related technologies like controller, interface and board/package, are moving forward. In addition, they may be able to keep pace for more than the next five years until any new emerging memory devices are commercialized.
The memory products/technologies we are anticipating this year are 3D NAND technology with 64L, 72L and 128L and 1x and 1y nm DRAM technology. As always, 3D NAND technology is competitive with emerging memory including X-point memory regarding on the performance, reliability, retention, process integration and cost since X-point memory and crossbar devices such as ReRAM, CBRAM, MRAM and PCRAM are likely not cost effective (bit cost).
While Samsung has already revealed 1x nm DRAM, in 2017, we believe there will be another big area of competition in DRAM technology. DRAM cell has 1T1C architecture with a cylindrical capacitor, however, nowadays, the cell capacitance cannot meet the capacitance spec (20fF/cell). Commercial DRAM products such as Samsung’s 18nm DRAM have just about 12fF/cell. With smaller cell nodes, it is absolutely harder to get the sufficient cell capacitance. Nevertheless, Samsung and SK-hynix are confident in developing n+1 (1y nm) and n+2 (1z nm). We anticipate that in 2017, every DRAM maker will be developing 1x and 1y nm commercial DRAM products. How these rollout and perform remains to be seen.
Finally, we are anticipating a commercial product using X-point memory from Micron and Intel.
These represent some of the major technologies we have our eye on this year, although we fully anticipate seeing emerging technologies we can only imagine today. After all, change is truly the only constant in our world. We’ll continue to examine the latest innovations and to share our findings.
The authors are all with TechInsights, a global leader in patent services. Stacey Wegner, a product manager and senior analyst, is responsible for device analysis selection, report content, product development, quality and accuracy of component and device analysis, and customer engagement. Ray Fontaine, a senior technology analyst, works primarily on semiconductor process and image sensor analysis. Jeongdong Choe, Ph.D., a senior technical fellow, technology intelligence, focuses on analysis of Advanced Memory/Logic Process technology, Design Architecture and Transistor/Device Test on DRAM, Flash (2D & 3D NAND, NOR), Emerging Memory (STT-MRAM, PCRAM, ReRAM/CBRAM, HMC/HBM TSV, Package and Logic/SoC and other semiconductor devices.