IMEC Tech Forum Looks at Smartphones Today and in the Future

In this brave new world powered by consumer electronic devices that cater to the user experience, smartphones and tablets are in the driver’s seat; pushing researchers to the very limits of possibility. At imec’s technology form on Smartphones, held for the first time during SEMICON West, researchers from the institute and guest experts shared vision and progress with invited attendees.

In his opening address, Luc Van den hove, president and CEO of IMEC, conjured up feelings of isolation, anxiety, and disconnection from the world when we misplace or forget out smartphones. “Our smartphone has become as important as our vital senses, and this is only the beginning,” he said, noting that 2010 was the year of the “massive breakthrough” for smartphones. With full HD, real life experience of games, and sensor integration, he said our phones have become a true personal assistant; a personalized gateway managing our professional, social and private lives. And that’s not all. The super smartphone is on its way, and semiconductor technologies are at the core.  Imec firmly believes that the diversity of challenges requires collaborative innovation, thus the goal of this workshop was to discuss the technologies needed to realize this phone.

Justin Rattner, CTO Sr. Fellow, Intel Labs, provided the IDM perspective of the future of mobile computing. He offered this factoid: in 2010, approximately 10B transistor per person on earth were manufactured and shipped. “The aggregate demand for computing is the accelerator of this,” noted Rattner. “We’re putting transistors in the hands of people all over the world, and we’re doing a good job.”  He stressed that this goes well beyond the smartphone, and that we have to take into account a much broader range of devices. For example, an enormous demand of bandwidth is putting a strain on data centers driven by social media outlets, streaming video, images, etc., ushering a new generation of innovation that requires both better hardware and software. “And we’re just getting started,” said Rattner. “The trend we see in the next 3-5 years is context-aware mobile computing.” he explained hard sensing will be extended to include skin response, heart rate, respiration to infer mood and make devices more sensitive. There will be more use of audio to determine information about your surroundings. It can be analyzed to provide an audio signature of one’s environment, and can determine whether 2 people are in the same or different audio environments. “Soft” sensing will be used to crank up devices to identify such personal information as calendar preferences, interests, and location.

In empowering phones to feel, see, and smell, imec technologists are working in collaboration to realize these technologies. Speaking on this topic, Jo De Boeck senior VP smart systems and energy technology, imec, said these new requirements open up new services and technology applications. For example, he talked about a CMOS-based NEMS technology sensitive enough to detect decisions and emotions during a chess game. Serge Biesemans VP, process technology, imec, explained the institute’s process and technology strategy that includes advanced photolithography that enables miniaturization, and a 22nm logic device that scales using FinFETS on SOI substrate. There’s also a paradigm shift taking place; go parallel if you can’t go faster, and if you can’t go parallel, use 3D technologies such as 3D TSV or 2.5 D Interposer technology; the next step to 3D is to go optical. All these options are being developed at imec.

In the 3D realm, Eric Beyne, scientific director advanced packaging and interconnect, Imec talked about the development of a DRAM on logic demonstrator that closely resembles future commercial chips (Figure 1).  Consisting of commercial DRAM stacked on imec’s proprietary CMOS, the demonstrator was developed for the purposes of thermomechanical modeling; to identify hotspots and figure out how connections can be made in such away to easily cool down the device.  Ludo Deferm, VP of business development, expanded on this for me, explaining that this device allows for the creation of design rules, based on the result of tests.  For example, it’s important for the top (DRAM) structure to be designed together with the bottom (Logic) structure, taking restrictions into account.  “It’s important to have guidelines we can use now to reduce risk. Life happens step by step,” notes Deferm, “We’re providing a path for vertical integration in a stepped approach.”


Figure 1: Logic IC stacked on DRAM IC, connected using TSVs and microchips.

Van den hove also stressed the importance of innovation through global partnership during his workshop address. Moving forward, it requires cooperation of the full ecosystem. Imec’s INSITE does just that. Launched in 2009 as one of the research institutes’ Industrial Affiliation Programs (IIAP) INSITE  forms a link between processes technology and system design. “It’s difficult to separate technology design from the system,” he explained. “which is why we bring the two communities together.”  Deferm explained that INSITE is directed at fabless and fablite companies and focuses on the impact of design on technologies.  For example, the impact of new pathfinding tools has created a platform for a virtual library.  Partners can design imaginary chips and use the virtual library to understand the consequences of a design.  This virtual library is based on real data so that real issues can be anticipated, and different options can be compared, such as FinFets with planar devices.  Using these pathfinding and floorplanning tools can save time and money that used to be spent on prototype models.

As Van den hove so eloquently summed up; INSITE supports open innovations that combines the best brains in the world with the full industry value chain and a world class infrastructure.  We can expect great things to come from this as the smartphone era continues to unfold.