Japan's component makers show the path forward for gadgets

Resistors, switches and sensors aren’t sexy, especially against the bright lights and flashy dance shows competing for attention at this week’s Ceatec show in Japan. But if you want to see the future of electronics, the companies that make these humble components are worth a closer look.

While the processor, display and software get most of the attention in new smartphones and wearables, it’s often the other components that drive new features and enable the continual march to smaller, lighter gadgets.

Many of those components come from Japanese companies like Murata, Rohm and Alps, which aren’t household names but are among the leaders in the component industry.

At this year’s Ceatec, Alps is showing a tiny sensor module attached to the arm of a pair of glasses. It measures just 5.5mm by 12.5 mm yet packs sensors for pressure, temperature, humidity, direction and geomagnetism, as well as a Bluetooth Low Energy radio, so the sensor readings can be sent to a companion gadget.

That means the module can sense when a user is walking, sitting down, turns their head or falls. It’s so small that it’s almost eclipsed by its Lithium Ion battery. Alps is using it to demonstrate the capabilities it can offer manufacturers of wearables.

At Rohm’s booth, the company is showing a different sensor module packed into a device shaped like a key. The components include an ultraviolet sensor, so it can advise you what level of sun screen to wear. And if you raise your arm and point the key at the top of well known landmark, like the Eiffel Tower, it will calculate the distance to the base of the building. It does this using the accelerometer, which measures the angle that your arm is raised.

Again, the idea is to show manufacturers what they can do with its components. A Rohm representative said the sensor board would cost only $1 when bought in large quantities.

A few steps away, Taiyo Yuden is showing some tiny capacitors. Its latest is almost half the volume of its previous model at an impressive 0.1mm by 0.05mm by 0.05mm—if you drop one of those on the floor, you’ll probably never be able to find it.

Memory cards continue to shrink through successive generations, and the connectors in which they slot are also getting smaller. Taiyo Yuden has managed to cram the card connector, housing and associated electronics into a module that’s thinner than any other on the market.

Murata, which has tried to make sensors sexy with its dancing robots, has a micro position sensor that’s 3mm square. It can be used to sense rotational movement and is destined for use in tiny gadgets, like behind the crown of a smartwatch. At Ceatec, Murata showed it mounted on the side of a pair of glasses as a zoom control for a camera. Like the Rohm resistors, Murata said it is the smallest such sensor in the world.

While some of the components on show are still prototypes, their development points to future gadgets that pack even more capabilities in a tiny form factor.

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