STMicroelectronics (NYSE:STM) and USound, a fast-growing audio company, have delivered the first silicon micro-speakers resulting from their technology collaboration announced last year. Engineering samples are now with lead customers, and trade demonstrations will take place during CES 2018, in Las Vegas.
These extremely small speakers, expected to be the thinnest in the world and less than half the weight of conventional speakers, enable wearable tech such as earphones, over-the-ear headphones, or Augmented-Reality/Virtual-Reality (AR/VR) headgear to become even more compact and comfortable. Their extremely low power consumption saves extra weight and size by allowing smaller batteries, and unlike conventional speakers they generate negligible heat.
As MEMS (Micro Electro-Mechanical Systems) devices, the speakers are leveraging technology that has already revolutionized the capabilities of smartphones and wearables. High-performing MEMS motion sensors, pressure sensors, and microphones built on silicon chips are the critical enablers for context sensing, navigation, tracking, and other features that mobile users now rely on every day. With MEMS advancements now coming to speakers, designers can further miniaturize the audio subsystem, reduce power consumption, and create innovative features like 3D sound. MEMS-industry analyst Yole Développement values the overall micro-speakers market at $8.7 billion currently, and expects MEMS manufacturers to capture share with silicon-based devices.
“This successful project combines USound’s design flair and ST’s extensive investment in MEMS expertise and processes, including our advanced thin-film piezo technology PeTra (Piezo-electric Transducer),” said Anton Hofmeister, Vice President and GM of MEMS Microactuators Division, STMicroelectronics. “Together, we are winning the race to commercialize MEMS micro-speakers by delivering a more highly miniaturized, efficient, and better-performing solution leveraging the advantages of piezo-actuation.”
“ST has provided the production expertise and manufacturing muscle to realize our original concept as a pace-setting, advanced product ready for consumer-market opportunities,” said Ferruccio Bottoni, CEO of USound. “These tiny speakers are now poised to change the design of audio and hearable products, and open up new opportunities to develop creative audio functionalities.”
In addition to applications in mobiles, audio accessories, and wearables, the new piezo-actuated silicon speakers support innovation in a wide variety of hearable electronics, including home digital assistants, media players, and IoT (Internet-of-Things) devices.
USound will demonstrate prototype AR/VR glasses containing multiple MEMS speakers per side, to invited guests at ST’s private suite during CES 2018. The demo will leverage the speakers’ ultra-thin form factor, low weight, and high sound quality to show how miniaturized audio systems can deliver outstanding experiences, and advanced features such as beam forming for private audio, within the extremely tight size, weight, and power constraints imposed by glasses and other wearables.