Chirp Microsystems waves on touch-free future

Within just a few years, we’ve got used to controlling devices by swiping, scrolling or tapping our fingers on a touch screen. But soon you might not even have to touch anything at all to check your email or play a video – just wave your hand in the air, thanks to ultrasonic technology from Chirp Microsystems, a startup company founded in 2013 by researchers from UC Davis and UC Berkeley.

Chirp’s technology is “disruptive” in the ultrasound area, said David Horsley, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis and co-founder of the company. Chirp’s ultrasound transducers are smaller and operate with much lower power needs than any currently available.

“Nobody is quite doing what we’re doing right now,” Horsley said.

[Horsley’s laboratory at UC Davis works on Micro-Electromechanical Systems (MEMS) and nanostructures that could be used for new sensors and other applications. In one project, they are developing a novel fingerprint reader based on ultrasound.]

Video demonstration of Chirp technology

Like sonar, but tiny

The principle behind Chirp is well-known: it’s basically sonar, giving off ultrasound waves and measuring how long they take to return after bouncing off surrounding objects. By using an array of multiple sensors, Chirp can measure hand movements and gestures and use them in a control interface.

What’s so disruptive about Chirp is that compared to current technology, its transducers are tiny, just millimeters across, can be built on a single microchip, and use very little power – as little as 10 microwatts, far less than a conventional ultrasound transducer or a digital camera.

The technology could be used in motion and gesture sensors, for object avoidance in drones and home robotics such as automated vacuum cleaners, and many other applications, Horsley said.

It’s part of a revolution in microsensors. At one time, gyroscopic motion sensors were bulky, expensive devices only found in aircraft or rockets. In the 1990s, microelectro- mechanical sensors, or MEMS, began to be incorporated in high-end cars as airbag sensors. Now, every smartphone, as well as personal activity monitors such as Fitbit, includes motion sensors.

“We think this could be very widely used within a few years,” Horsley said.

Chirp is currently located in downtown Berkeley and exhibited at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The startup has received support from the National Science Foundation through a Small Business Innovation Research grant, and participated in UC Davis’ Engineering Translational Technology Center and the Skydeck incubator at UC Berkeley.

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