Sensor Hub Market Growth Triggered by Smartphones

By WPG AmericasMarch 8, 2016

Sensor hubs—dedicated processing elements that enable low-power sensor processing—is a burgeoning market that’s predicted to surpass 1.0 billion units in 2016 and reach nearly 2.0 billion in 2018, according to a recent press release by IHS Inc. The researcher named “always on” sensor processing trends and the battery constraints as the two main drivers of this growth.

The rapid shift from discrete microcontrollers (MCUs) to sensor hubs is evident in many high-end smartphones. “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 IHS MEMS & Sensors for Consumer and Mobile Intelligence Service.

Senior analyst for IHS Technology, Marwan Boustany stated Apple’s iPhone 6S as leading the sensor hub trends that will take place in the smartphone industry. "The sensor hub market is incredibly dynamic, changing rapidly over the last two years, due in large part to Apple's iPhones," said Boustany. "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."

In the next few years, AP-sensor hubs are forecasted to take over the midrange to high-end smartphone segments. "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," added Boustany.

With the rise in use of AP sensor hubs, market share for MCU and other discrete sensor hubs will shrink but they will still have a place in the wearable device segment. Wearables require long battery life in small packaging, which is why they will continue to use discrete MCUs and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). However, Qualcomm's Snapdragon 400 and other AP sensor hubs have started making their way into the wearable device market too. Therefore, how the market division between MCUs and sensor hubs shapes up is yet to be seen.

"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,” Boustany also pointed out. "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 like Bosch Sensortec are moving ahead with the trend. Bosch Sensortec launched a new generation of accelerometers– BMA422 and BMA455—designed to match the requirements of the next-generation smartphones and wearables. In fact, they are touted as the first-ever standalone accelerometers to be integrated with embedded intelligence. Some of the features of the new Bosch Sensortec accelerometers include longer battery time, reduced power consumption, and improved user experience.

“Overall system power management and user experience can be improved by the accelerometer detecting and processing motions such as glance, pick-up and tilt,” stated the company in a recent press release.