“Sad State” of Mobile Mics Industry Blamed for Holding Back Siri

We’ve all had our frustrating experiences with Apple’s voice assistant Siri, like when she butchers what we’re trying to say. The lack of performance for the likes of Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, according to Bloomberg, is partly to blame on the “sad state” of the $1 billion digital mic industry, or microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) microphones market.

A few players in the mic industry have failed to improve their hardware and software, but changes are on the horizon. Peter Cooney, an analyst at SAR Insight & Consulting believes “No doubt, there is an arms race,” going on right now.

Marwan Boustany, from research firm IHS Markit, says “microphone performance has not really improved that much,” since the 2012 launch of the iPhone 5.

Apple and other tech companies are demanding mics with better signal-to-noise ratio, to improve the isolation of voices more clearly and from further distances, while also seeking a higher acoustic overload point, known as the threshold when a mic is no longer able to differentiate signal from noise. Moreover, mics need to remain tiny, yet also use battery power conservatively.

The original iPhone in 2007 only had one mic, but Apple has increased numbers to three in the iPhone 6 and four in latest iPhone 6s.

Knowles, the market leader which shipped roughly 1.4 billion MEMS mics in 2015, has turned to software to improve performance, by including audio-processing algorithms into mics themselves, reducing power demands.

Upstart MEMS company Vesper is utilizing new designs to improve signal and power usage, according to Chief Executive Officer Matt Crowley:

A conventional microphone condenses sound waves into electrical signals based on the movement of a metal plate in relation to a second, static plate—which tends to collect dust and moisture over time, reducing its sensitivity. Vesper’s flexible piezoelectric technology generates its own voltage and eliminates the need for the static plate, improving signal and power use.

While mics can be blamed for lack of Siri performance, compare the latter with Google’s voice search on iOS, which is superior in picking up what I’m trying to say, versus Siri. Mics haven’t improved in the leaps and bounds as mobile cameras have, but let’s hope this will change for the better. Apple revealed yesterday they’re already seeing huge jumps in their AI and Machine Learning efforts with Siri.