Synaptics today announced its Integrated Sensor Processors that address some of the bigger challenges in IoT. Synaptics has been on my radar recently as it has gone through many significant changes, including a new CEO change a couple of years back, big M&A, and a shift towards premium IoT. FlexSense is Synaptics’ first family of integrated sensor processors and is very small, power-efficient, and disruptive in the IoT market. Let’s dive in.
The challenges of IoT
For every companion device like a smartphone or a laptop, there are about four to five IoT devices that enhance these experiences, like a truly wireless headset, smartwatch, smart speaker, or game controller. Automobiles are even becoming more than simple infotainment systems. All of these IoT devices use sensors to enhance the experience and create an interaction between the user and other devices.
Like many technologies, the move forward towards a better IoT experience is for IoT devices to become smaller, more compact, and feature-rich. Take smartphone cameras as an example: camera modules became better and smaller, and eventually, each smartphone had two or three cameras, and now we see devices like the Galaxy S22 Ultra with four cameras– with one being a 10x optical zoom.
While the smartphone camera is performance-driven, IoT devices are driven by experience and intuitive interaction. For example, a Google smart speaker can be activated by saying its command words, and you can ask Google assistant a plethora of questions, actions, and interactive commands. IoT is moving from this experience toward an intuitive and ambient-like interaction where the smart speaker obtains human-like interactions. Imagine if you sat down on the couch, and the Google speaker detected that you sat down and asked, “Would you like me to turn on the television and play something for you?”. Keep in mind also that IoT devices come in all shapes and sizes, and while there are multiple discrete sensors on the market with small power envelopes, there is not one small solution.
FlexSense sensor processor
FlexSense is Synaptics’ first integrated sensor processor and has been engineered to replace the multiple discrete sensors with one integrated sensor processor and to be small, ultra-low power, and highly configurable. It has up to 8 channels and simultaneously supports between 2 to 4 sensors. The FlexSense sensor processor is 1.6mm by 1.6mm, which is incredibly small, and as of writing this, the smallest sensor processor on the market. I am impressed by the size of the FlexSense and by the amount of sensor support that Synaptics has been able to put into such an efficient device. This combination of size and capability allows FlexSense to be highly applicable and scalable.
As mentioned before, the drive of the IoT market is to create an intuitive interaction, and by loading IoT devices with multiple sensors, devices become more intuitive. Synaptics is taking a one-size-fits-all approach to loading up IoT with sensors by making an all-in-one sensor processor. For this approach to be worth it, it would have to meet the power budget per device. In instances where it would seem to consume too much power, that needs to be weighed against how many discrete sensors it replaces in a specific application. I see it being beneficial, at least in the first generation, for devices with the most sensors.
While the power draw varies by application, the FlexSense sensor processor has a typical power draw of 240µW and an at-rest power draw of 10µW for a trule wireless stereo (TWS) application. Put into perspective, this level of power efficiency is lower than the power draw of Bluetooth LE. 10µW is an incredibly small amount, and I am assuming that depending on the number of sensors, the power draw comes between the 10µW and the 240µW, which is impressive. Synaptics also says the FlexSense processor is highly configurable, adding to the applicable nature of the FlexSense processor and the simplicity of the sensors of a device.
One of the bigger takeaways of the FlexSense sensor processor is that, because it architecturally is only one processor per for up to four sensing modalities, it has a lower cost and effectively lower BOM. Also, since it reduces the number of sensor processors down to one, it also reduces the amount of space on a device, leading to more compact designs. I see OEMs and ODMs jumping on a product like this, especially for products where space and power efficiency are of the highest priority. A great product that comes to mind is TWS, where size and power efficiency are highly valued. Other applications include controllers for gaming and VR/AR, wearables, and a plethora of smart home devices.
Synaptics has three tiers of FlexSense processors, ranging from a mainstream-level configuration to a configuration for high-end products. In the case of TWS earbuds, the goal is to create an immersive experience with quality sound, long battery life, and comfortability. The more sensors, the better TWS earbuds can understand in what state they are in and how to create an intuitive interaction most effectively. TWS is a great example of how FlexSense is capable of hitting all the checkmarks of power efficiency, compactness, lower costs, and configurablity while being scalable for more demanding IoT applications.
I also see ODMs and OEMs jumping on FlexSense because it greatly simplifies up-front design and simplifies the supply chain in that it moves from four chips to one. All the work that goes into getting each discrete sensor processor to work together is greatly minimized to one integrated sensor processor. Synaptics also has a configuration tool for the FlexSense processor to simplify the process.
I am impressed with Synaptic’s FlexSense sensor processor and how it is able to consolidate the processing of an IoT device’s sensor into such a small and power-efficient processor. Synaptics hit the nail on the head by making it scalable, easily configurable, and applicable to a multitude of IoT devices. I believe it could be popular among OEMs and ODMs, especially on products with multiple tiers.
As Synaptics improves on the all-in-one FlexSense processor and creates an intuitive experience among IoT devices, I believe AI is going to jump into the mix at some point. The single sensor processor has the potential to up the ante of sensor processing as sensor data is processed in one location. Synaptics should continue to add value to the FlexSense sensor processor, and as AI envelopes every computing device, I do not see the one sensor processor to rule them all as an exception.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy co-op Jacob Freyman contributed to this article.