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  • Brian Trotter

What new innovations are coming at Synaptics?

Updated: Feb 12

In Synaptics’ Q2 Earnings Release last week, CEO Michael Hurlston talked about "transforming Synaptics" with the company's "highly differentiated capabilities in products like our OLED touch and our low power, high-performance edge computing SoCs”.


Wall Street clearly liked that message, moving the stock up almost 20% since the earnings announcement. But do their recent patent publications show innovations in those areas of touch and edge-computing SoCs? Does their record of innovation match up with their long-term strategy? We'll look at their patent publications from the past 6 months and see how they align.


First, let’s look at a simple breakdown of patent publications by technology area. Keep in mind, patents are typically published 18 months after the earliest filing date, so some of these applications have yet to even be examined by the Patent Office. Even so, it does give us great insight into where Synaptics is focusing their innovative efforts.


In the past 6 months, Synaptics had 37 patents published.Here’s the breakdown by technical area:


Not surprisingly, the Touch Controller area is at the top of the list. It’s encouraging to see the core technology of the company driving both revenue and innovation. They are doing the innovative work to stay at the top of that technology. This new SoC focus is captured in areas like Audio, Fingerprint and Sensor, where they are looking to enable more features in smart devices. Another key area is the display technology that is driving significant revenue today. While the longer-term focus is in SoC and Touch Controller areas, they are right to continue innovating to support this revenue in the Display space.


Let’s look in more detail at some specific patent applications in a couple of these top areas:


SoCs for Smart Devices


CEO Hurlston is clearly focused on pushing more sensors and algorithms into smart devices, stating in the earnings conference call that, "this new family of SoCs will power a new generation of smart displays, smart cameras, sound bars, set-top boxes, voice-enabled devices and other emerging connected products”.


But do they have the innovations in the pipeline to follow through? Let’s look at a couple of examples:


The first patent publication concerns technique for voice biometrics ("Voice biometrics systems and methods", US Patent Publication #2019/0311722). In one example, they mention use of a unique “acoustic code” that a user must speak and is then matched to a set of known user voice features. Another application is very squarely targeted at the Alexa-type smart devices ("360-degree multi-source location detection, tracking and enhancement”, US Patent Publication #2019/0355373). This application discloses a technique to use multiple audio sources from the multiple microphones in a smart device to detect the dominant audio source location to better track the primary speaker.


The last innovation we’ll look at in this smart device space is also in the area of Audio and Voice applications, but is more directed towards traditional noise cancellation techniques ("Methods and systems for tuning an active noise canceling audio device by an end user”, US Patent Publication #2018/0182371). This is a conventional feedback noise cancellation system for generating ‘anti-noise’ that includes a path for a user to adjust the noise cancellation based on their perception, labelled as "User's Perceptual Feedback" in the drawing below:



Looks like a great invention, right? The only problem is that it has currently been rejected by the Patent Office. The process is not over, but one of the publications cited by the Patent Office is a granted patent owned by Turtle Beach ("HEADSET WITH USER CONFIGURABLE NOISE CANCELLATION vs AMBIENT NOISE PICKUP”). Synaptics may end up modifying their application to get something granted, but it is hard to see this becoming a valuable patent given there is prior art so close to their application.


While they are innovating in areas related to smart devices, they may be late to the game in a few areas like noise cancellation.



Touch Controllers


The focus in the Touch controller space is on improving performance of their sensors. One application (“Noise suppression circuit”, US Patent Publication #2019/0310739) uses multiple sensors to improve the performance of the touch controller in a noisy environment. Another application is more specifically focused on the fingerprint sensor application (“Short latency fingerprint sensing”, US Patent Publication #2019/0377924).


The most interesting application in this space concerns electromagnetic interference (EMI) in sensor applications. This application ("Capacitive sensing active electromagnetic emission cancellation", US Patent Publication #2018/0181251) discloses a technique for driving the sensor electrodes in a unique pattern to minimize the amount of EMI generated by the controller. EMI is a big concern in today’s small electronic devices as there is less and less room for shields or other physical materials for mitigating EMI. The other way we know this is a valuable innovation for Synaptics is because they have taken this case all the way to an appeal before the Patent Trials and Appeals Board. The application was initially rejected, but Synaptics has continued trying to get it granted. They clearly think they have something valuable, so it will be interesting to see how this appeal is resolved.


One More Interesting Filing...


When evaluating the patent publications of different companies, there’s usually at least one that surprises you. For Synaptics, it’s one related to semiconductor packaging. Some of their optical sensor devices included innovative packaging technology, but this is a more traditional stacked semiconductor package ("Stacked wafer integrated circuit", US Patent Publication #2019/0371681). The disclosure specifically mentions this as a technique useful to combine an “analog wafer” and a “digital wafer”. This cross-section plot for their patent filing shows how the digital wafer (510) could be mated with the analog wafer (520).

Given their earlier filing regarding reducing EMI, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them come out with a co-packaged processor-plus-sensor solution to try and reduce board trace lengths and reduce EMI.


Conclusion


When executives make promises of revenue growth and disruptive innovation in new areas, it’s always good to check those plans against what the company patent filings tell you. In the case of Synaptics, there is good alignment between their focus on SoCs for smart devices and continued improvement in their touch controllers.

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