3D ultrasound user interface, more than a touch of PMUT – An interview with UltraSense Systems

From the mouse to the iPod click wheel to multi-touch, user interface technologies are enabling the use of other technologies through the interaction we have with them. Therefore, although located at the surface of objects, they are at the heart of this interaction. Founded in 2018 in San Jose, California, UltraSense Systems has developed a novel touch user interface based on 3D ultrasound. Using Piezoelectric Micromachined Ultrasonic Transducers (PMUT) and proprietary software, the new technology enables the transformation of any surface of any shape or material into a touch interface. Various applications are on their way in smartphones, wearables, automotive, industrial, and medical applications.

Yole Développement’s “Ultrasound Sensing Technologies 2020” report estimates a market of $133M for ultrasound modules for consumer user interface by 2025, with an impressive forecast Compound Annual Growth Rate from 2019-2025 (CAGR19-25) of 81.2%, representing a huge opportunity for this new technology.

Jérôme Mouly, Team Lead Analyst of the Sensing and Actuating team, and Alexis Debray, Senior Analyst, both at Yole Développement, sat down with Mo Maghsoudnia, founder and CEO of UltraSense Systems, to learn more about the exciting technology behind this new 3D ultrasound user interface and the many applications to come. Read their discussion below.

Yole Développement (YD): Could you please introduce UltraSense Systems (history, activity, principal shareholders…)

Mo Maghsoudnia (MM): UltraSense is ushering in a new touch user interface technology that enables smart surfaces. We have created the world’s smallest ultrasound system-on-a-chip that can be used as a technology platform to deliver our touch user interface to smartphones, consumer electronics, IoT, home appliances, medical and automotive markets. Our technology can sense through almost any material and virtually any material thickness to cost-effectively turn any surface into a sensor. Metals, glass, plastic, and wood can easily be turned into smart surfaces.

Over the decades, we have seen a paradigm shift in the way we interact with physical devices, one where digital has replaced mechanical. As an example, the Blackberry phone was the craze 15 years ago but was quickly crushed by the iPhone with a slick new touch interface display technology that spawned an era of new products, such as the smartphone, tablet, touchscreen PCs, and wearables, among others. Tesla followed in automobiles by minimizing and replacing traditional mechanical buttons and switches with a touch interface using an oversized tablet.

UltraSense was founded in April of 2018 by former executives of InvenSense with experience in selling over one billion motion and audio sensors to the smartphone and consumer electronics market. The company is funded by Artiman Ventures, Robert Bosch Venture, Sony Technology Fund, and Asahi Kasei Ventures.

YD: UltraSense Systems claims a new touch user interface with 3D ultrasound. What are the applications the company is targeting?

MM: The use of ultrasound in touch user interfaces has not been implemented in such a novel way until now. Through our family of TouchPoint ultrasound sensor solutions, we are enabling a range of new use cases that will allow OEMs to differentiate and bring consumers sleeker, waterproof devices where touch and gesture can be customized for specific user experiences. Our focus is on the smartphone market today. Waterfall edge capacitive displays are very costly and consume too much power for “always-on” power & volume buttons.

The biggest advantage of UltraSense’s technology is the capability to sense through thick materials such as glass and metal (e.g., stainless steel and aluminum) with a highly localized touch area. Today, we see an extensive range of use cases for conductive surfaces (i.e., Aluminum and Stainless Steel), thick glass, thick plastics, and specialty materials, including leather.

YD: Do you see any specific demand for such a new type of user interface (no buttons, any shape, any material/media…)?

MM: There is a massive demand to create smart surfaces across many markets and applications. Removing cut-outs for buttons and making solid-state surfaces in addition to waterproofing are key parameters driving the need.

YD: Could you elaborate on the detection principle and the advantages foreseen? Is the sensor able to detect movement and force applied?

MM: UltraSense’s TouchPoint is the world’s smallest ultrasound sensing system-on-a-chip delivering highly localized touch sensing for thin and thick surfaces with a sensor size of 1.4mmx2.6mx0.5mm and consuming <20uA of power in always-on mode. The sensor is designed to operate independently of a product’s host processor with all the algorithm processing embedded in the sensor. It can be used as a standalone power button, among other uses for wake-on-touch sensing by powering on the entire product with a simple touch, and can be a multi-functional user interface using a series of taps, holds, and swipes. In addition to detecting touch, we also sense Z-force providing gram-force measurement for applications that require “weight-scale” detection accuracy.

YD: How does this new technology compare to other technologies?

MM: There are numerous competitive advantages for this technology platform. Compared to capacitive sensing, we measure both Touch and Force. We can also provide a programmable sensitivity beyond our capabilities in measuring thin and thick conductive materials. Strain gauges suffer from cross-talk between buttons and force exerted on the device. With our ultrasound channel, we are immune to cross-talk and can deliver a very tightly spaced touch user interface. Most notably, we provide a single “chip” solution with a small form factor capable of operating independently of host or application processor.

YD: Your company is using MEMS technology for your ultrasound sensor. Could you please introduce PMUT technology and elaborate on why this choice compared to bulk-based sensors?

MM: PMUT technology is highly desirable in order to deliver a sensor SoC with a small form factor and thus low cost. It is high-yielding and does not require high voltage. Furthermore, integration with standard CMOS technology was another critical factor in terms of our consideration.

YD: What are the main challenges and advantages in developing PMUT devices? In terms of design, integration with ASIC, key process steps (thin film deposition…)?

MM: There are ample applications/opportunities where ultrasound can be effectively utilized. However, there is limited piezoelectric material available for designing “high performance” PMUTs. This is coupled with a lack of Foundries supporting PMUT process technologies.

YD: Can you talk about your collaborations in developing and producing this PMUT-based sensor?

MM: It is certainly challenging to develop new process technologies or research new material in Foundries today, especially considering the limited global capacity and IC supply shortages. However, we are working very closely with various educational institutions on very advanced processes and materials.

YD: What are the next steps for UltraSense Systems: Which products will integrate the 3D ultrasound chips? What is the timeline?

MM: We are very excited to see the proliferation of our technology and solutions across multiple markets, from smartphone to consumer electronics to automotive.  You will see the roll-out of our solutions commencing soon in 2021.

YD: Any other information you would like to share with our readers?

MM: We’re envisioning a future where mechanical buttons are a feature of the past. We are excited to revolutionize design possibilities with our “TouchPoint” user interface solutions.


Mo Maghsoudnia_UltraSense_circle

Mo Maghsoudnia currently serves as Founder/CEO of ULTRASENSE SYSTEMS. He  was previously  VP of Technology and Manufacturing at InvenSense. After the acquisition of InvenSense by TDK, Mo left to start a new company focused on the medical device market. UltraSense was spawned from that and started in April 2018. Prior to InvenSense, he was the Vice President of Worldwide Manufacturing at NetLogic Microsystems where he was responsible for all worldwide operations. Prior to NetLogic Microsystems, was responsible for the management of wafer fabrication and technology at Analog Devices. Maghsoudnia holds a Master of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering from Santa Clara University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Microelectronic Engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology. He holds 12 U.S. patents and has co-authored various technical papers.


Jérôme Mouly - Yole Développement

Jérôme Mouly is Team Lead Analyst in the Sensing & Actuating team within the Photonic & Sensing Division at Yole Développement (Yole).
Jérôme manages the expansion of the technical expertise and market know-how of the team. He actively supports and assists in the development of a dedicated collection of market & technology reports as well as custom consulting projects.
He has conducted more than 100 marketing and technological analyses for industrial groups, start-ups, and institutes in the field of MEMS and sensing technologies.
Jérôme has been also deeply engaged in Yole’s finance activities with a dedicated focus on the commercial exploitation of smart system technologies and access to funding opportunities.
Jérôme is regularly involved in international conferences, with presentations and keynotes.
Jérôme Mouly earned a Master of Physics degree from the University of Lyon (FR).

Alexis Debray - Yole Développement

Alexis Debray, Ph.D., is a Senior Analyst at Yole Développement (Yole), dedicated to the production of technology & market reports and custom consulting projects in the fields of Photonics, Sensing, and Semiconductors.
Before joining Yole, Alexis spent 17 years in Japan. He worked for 2 years developing expertise in MEMS technologies and then for 15 years at Canon Inc. as a research engineer, where he contributed to numerous developmental projects focused on MEMS devices, lingual prehension, and terahertz imaging devices.
Alexis is the author of various scientific publications and patents. He graduated from ENSICAEN (France) and was awarded a Ph.D. in applied acoustics.

Related report

Ultrasound Sensing Technologies 2020 Yole Développement

Ultrasound Sensing Technologies 2020
In the ultrasound module market, CMUT and PMUT are growing two times faster in medical and consumer applications.

Source: https://www.ultrasensesys.com/

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