Is TDK's Chirp Acquisition an Investment in the Future of VR?

TDK has entered a deal to acquire sonar-on-a-chip inventor Chirp Microsystems, bringing about many questions about the future of touch-free control in VR/AR and beyond.

Chirp Microsystems, makers of a novel time-of-flight (ToF) sensor that enables touch-free control of devices, has released its first series of products and entered into a deal to be acquired by TDK. But will Chirp's most unique application, touch-free controls for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), remain on the road map?

Chirp produces a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)-based ToF sensor that uses ultrasonic transducers to track motions as precise as hand-gestures. The company sparked a lot of interest over the potential for its sensors to be used in VR and AR applications, where engineers are actively seeking ways to create systems that are more wireless. However, Chirp says that because of their small size and low power consumption, its sensors can be applied to a broad range of use cases from robotics and drones, to industrial and even automotive applications and smartphones. As the sensors use ultrasound, they also work in direct sunlight, unlike optical ToF sensors and their low power consumption (as low as 15 microwatts according to company specs) means they can be applied in always-on applications such as motion sensing.

Measuring 3.5 x 3.5 mm, Chirp's ultrasonic ToF sensors are the smallest of their kind.
(image source: Chirp Microsystems) 

“Ultrasonic sensors are widely used in industrial and automotive applications because they are robust, accurate, and reliable” Michelle Kiang, CEO of Chirp Microsystems, said in a press statement. “Until today, ultrasonic sensors were too big and ugly to fit into consumer electronics. At Chirp, we invented a tiny, millimeter-sized ultrasound chip that can deliver the same performance as conventional sensors that are one thousand times bigger. As we reduced the size, we were also able to dramatically reduce the power consumption – to the point where you can run the sensor at a few micro-amps of current. This combination of small size, ultra-low power and ease-of-use opens ultrasonic sensing to a wide variety of products for the first time.”

In December of last year Chirp released two flagship SoCs, the CH-101 and CH-201. The CH-101 has a maximum sensing range of 1 m and is designed for shorter-range applications such as smartphones, VR, and AR. “The CH-101 allows product designers to remove the optical proximity sensor from the front of the phone to create a bezel-less display,” Kiang said, “That’s because the CH-101’s wide field-of-view allows it to measure range even when it is mounted on the top or bottom sides of the phone. Since this is the location of the microphone and speakers, it’s easy for designers to add another acoustic sensor at these locations.”  

The CH-201 is targeted at longer-range applications, with a maximum rang of 5 m. Both sensors come on an SoC that measures 3.5 x 3.5mm, operates on a single 1.8 V power supply, and has an I2C interface. Both sensors take measurements at sample rates up to 100-per-second with a position noise below 1mm. They also have a 180-degree field of view, meaning a single sensor can scale to sense objects throughout an entire room.

Only weeks after the release of the CH-101 and CH-201, Chirp made another major announcement in late February when it announced it has entered into a deal to be acquired by TDK. TDK hopes to use Chirp's technology expand its range of ultrasonic sensor solutions and to augment the existing fingerprint sensor technology it offers through another subsidiary, InvenSense. Chirp's sensors will become the latest addition to TDK’s sensor and actuator business, which includes pressure, temperature, current, and magnetic sensors.

“TDK is committed to contributing to the growth of systems deployed in the automotive, mobile, healthcare, and industrial industries,” Noboru Saito, Senior Vice President of TDK and CEO of Sensor Systems Business Company, said in a press statement. “Our vision is to be the leading solutions provider of sensors for motion, sound, environmental elements (pressure, temperature, and humidity), and ultrasonic sensors for the Internet of Things (IoT) era. Chirp’s unique and high value-added 3D sensing technologies will fill out our lineup of sensor solutions, positioning TDK as the leader in ultrasonic MEMS technology ...”

One of the more exciting prospects for Chirp's sensors was in enabling mobile VR. Major OEMs in the VR/AR space know that for the technology to progress in both enterprise and entertainment applications the heads-up displays and controllers are going to have to be wireless and require no external trackers. For engineers, designing a product in VR has its benefits, but the ease of use drops significantly when you force them to have to navigate a workspace that is a minefield of wires to potentially trip over.

 

A video demonstrating Chirp's technology to provide touch-free controls of a tablet computer.  (source: Chirp Microsystems)

 

By offering the potential for a touch-free control scheme for VR/AR, Chirp's technology represented one of the most promising developments towards true mobile VR, after all, there's nothing more easy and convenient for interaction than a bare human hand.

Chirp itself was clear with its aspirations towards VR and AR, but with this new acquisition by TDK it becomes less certain if enthusiasts should be watching out for a product targeted directly at the VR space any time soon. While names like Oculus, HTC, and Samsung have become big names in the VR hardware space for headsets, there hasn't been a company to emerge as a big name in the sensing and motion-tracking technologies that will be essential for the next wave of VR hardware.

For its part, however, TDK has been developing products for the VR space. In 2017, following its acquisition of InvenSense, the company unveiled a 6-axis motion sensor, the ICM-20603 targeted at motion-tracking for VR and AR. In a FAQ regarding the acquisition TDK said that it plans to leverage Chirp's technology to augment InvenSense's motion sensors: “Chirp’s sensors have synergy with TDK’s inertial sensors and sensor fusion software libraries. In VR/AR applications, Chirp’s 6-DOF controller tracking solution uses a sensor fusion algorithm to fuse ultrasonic ToF data with inertial sensor outputs to provide the 6-DOF position and orientation of hand-held controllers. Combining Chirp’s ultrasonic sensing expertise with InvenSense’s expertise in inertial sensing and sensor fusion algorithms, we aim to significantly enhance this AR/VR system solution.”  

 


AR & VR APPLICATIONS FOR PRODUCT DESIGN
Explore the impact of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) on the innovation process, during this interactive panel discussion at ADM Cleveland, March 7-8, 2018. Learn how to apply these technologies to improve productivity, creativity, quality, reduce time to market, and reduce the development costs. Register today!

 

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, and robotics.

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