MWC: MEMS the word

BARCELONA–You never would have figured Qualcomm would have been so proud of a tiny one-inch black-and-white screen, but the that’s just what the chipset maker was showing off at the Mobile World Congress. The Hisense C108 is the first phone using display technoloy from Qualcomm’s MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS) subsidiary, and while the phone may not be the most impressive looking handset at the Congress it probably has the best battery life. The MEMS display reflects ambiant light to render its images, unlike liquid crystal displays which depend on a power-draining backlight. The result is a phone that can go 20% to 40% longer without recharging than it peers.

The nanotechnology essentially uses thousands of tiny mirrors and gates to reflect or block natural light in the display. The angle of the mirrors and the width of the aperatures determine the color and depth of the individual pixels rendered. And since the display gathers the surrounding light, the image doesn’t fade under the glare of the sun, but rather increases in intensity. So far Qualcomm has managed to get its displays into a few consumer gadgets and the Hisense phone sans color, but MEMS technologies vice president of business development James Cathey said you have to start small. As more consumer devices start incorporating the technology, Qualcomm can start scaling its fabrication facilities, allowing it to create bigger and more sophisticated screens at a lower cost. Eventually the technology could move beyond displays, Cathey said. Tunable antennas and even motion-based navigation systems could use the mirror technology.

So why is a radio chip maker suddenly interested in display technology? The answer is simpler than you think. Qualcomm’s interest is in selling bigger and badder wireless chips that support all sorts of multimedia and data communications capabilities.  Those applications are power intensive, though, so Qualcom needs to find ways of allocating power away from the basic functions of the phone to the processor and radio. The power crunch is already here. Apple sacrificed the 3G chip in its iPhone in order to support its large color display. Qualcomm doesn’t want its customers making that decision.

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