Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

STMicro Makes Its Tiny Gyroscopes Even Tinier

Have you ever wondered how your iPhone or iPad got so smart as to know which way you’re holding it and re-orient the picture accordingly?

It’s because of two tiny parts inside them, one called an accelerometer that detects movement. The other is a gyroscope that is basically used to help maintain orientation of an object or to measure any changes in its orientation.

The first three generations of iPhone had accelerometers, but the iPhone 4 and later the iPad had gyroscopes built into them in order to give software developers — game creators especially — a truly accurate way to measure how the phone is moved and thus change the action on-screen accordingly. Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs memorably demonstrated what the addition of gyroscopes meant with an on-screen game of Jenga on an iPhone at an Apple event last year.

The company that made them is the Italian-French semiconductor company STMicroelectronics. Neither company will ever say that out loud, Apple for its own reasons and STMicro out of fear of annoying Apple. However, teardown analyses of both the iPhone 4 and the iPad 2 conducted by the research house IHS iSuppli have confirmed this.

I bring it up because STMicro will announce today that it has made its gyroscope chips even smaller than before. The most recent one was about about 17 cubic millimeters, and the new one is just slightly above 10 cubic millimeters. What’s the point in making them smaller? For one, real estate inside a device like an iPhone is precious, so when any one component gets smaller, designers have more space to work with. And often, smaller parts require incrementally less power, which means only good things for battery life.

STMicro has already built more than a billion and a half of these little things — not all of them for use in the iPhone and other Apple iThings, obviously. They do show up in other phones and gaming devices, GPS navigators, robots and scores of other things. ISuppli pegged STMicro’s share of the gyroscope market at 30 percent in 2010, which is pretty impressive considering that it was all of 1 percent the prior year.

Yet as is usually the case with chip companies, the company rarely gets to brag about the identity of its customers, even though it would like nothing better than to shout their names from the rooftops. Instead, you can hear Steve Jobs himself sing the praises of the gyroscope, though without naming the company that made it, in this video excerpt from last year’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.

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