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Forget IoT: The Internet of Moving Things Is Where It Is At

mCube
An mCube business card shows the evolution of the firm's motion sensors from a package measuring 3 x 3 mm to a future generation measuring 1.1 x 1.1 mm.

Not content with the run-of-the-mill Internet of Things (IoT), a startup named mCube says it is helping to drive something better: the Internet of Moving Things.

It's been a good year for the San Jose, CA-based company, which makes tiny motion sensors. Its next-generation product will measure 1.1 mm by 1.1 mm. In November, the firm was named "MEMS Start-Up of the Year" at the MEMS Executive Congress and also won first place in the event's Technology Showcase. In June, the company closed a $37 million cash infusion to continue work on its sensors, which it bills as the world's smallest accelerometer, which combines both MEMS and CMOS in a single-chip.

The single-chip approach enables the company to have such tiny sensors. "All of the rest of the world has a two-chip solution, which is what the industry has been using for the last 20-30 years," says Sanjay Bhandari, PhD, vice president of engineering at the company. "You get benefits in terms of the smallest interconnects between the MEMS actuation/sensing element and the CMOS circuits that process the signal. That enables us to have the best performance because the interconnect is so small and close. It is a 3-D chip."

The company has already shipped 70 million of the sensors, which are used for an array of applications including smartphones and wearable devices. Medical device companies are also interested in the technology, says Ben Lee, the company's president and CEO. For some medtech companies, mCube's tiny technology is the only solution that will work for their miniaturized applications.

One application that Lee envisions is for the technology to be used to enable a sort of GPS for surgery. The tiny sensors could be embedded into surgical instruments to help surgeons know where they are in the body. It could be used as a sort of GPS for the body instead of for the street. (i.e. "Doctor, turn left at this vein juncture.") In addition, it could be used to help enable remote surgery. By embedding numerous sensors in surgical instruments, surgeons could get feedback on their hand movements.

In the future, the company's chips could be so small and inexpensive that they could be embedded into clothing, giving the term "wearable" a more literal meaning. As the technology draws minimal power, it would theoretically be possible to satisfy its energy demands through energy harvesting. Instead of just monitoring activity, why not harvest the power from a walking or running consumer, too? In terms of storing energy, Lee says that researchers are now working on fibers that can store energy as well.

Lee envisions that a given piece of clothing in the future could have, say, 100 sensors embedded into it. It could be embedded into pajamas to track a consumer's sleep patterns. Or it could be embedded into athletic uniforms to track activity levels and athlete's health during games or to help monitor concussions. Lee dreams of a future in which the motion sensors could be used in conjunction with software models of the athletes to enable instant replay for an entire game, as every move of every athlete would be recorded by the motion sensors--like Moneyball, but taken to a whole different level.

At present, however, there is considerable hype surrounding wearables, and the technology thus far is relatively primitive while the potential for the technology is huge. It is likely that many companies will try and fail to come up with meaningful wearable products that can engage consumers over the long run. In the long run, however, Lee envisions that something game-changing will come out of the ashes of those technologies that fail to resonate with the public.

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at MD&M West, in Anaheim, CA, February 10-12, 2015.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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