J003-Content-Coming-to-our-Sensors_SQOne of the fastest-growing and seemingly unstoppable trends as we move forward in the second quarter of this year seems to be that of device sensors that collect information of all kinds and use it to automate our lives.  At this year’s CES, there was a proliferation of sensors on display, and the inclusion of sensors in smart phones, smart watches and other devices is increasing every day. From measuring heart rates and other medical information to temperature and humidity, light, hand gestures, accelerometers and more, sensors are a hot trend in today’s technology world. Let’s look at how they’re being used and how they can make your devices (and even your household appliances) “smarter” and more useful – along with some of the drawbacks of living in a sensor-laden world.

Sensors are components that can detect and measure changes in the environment in which they’re deployed. To be useful, they must also be able to communicate or record information about those changes in the form of readouts, reports, alerts, etc.  Sensors are a big part of our lives; touch screens, motion detectors, smoke alarms, thermometers, automatic doors, microphones, automobile “black boxes,” flow meters, Geiger counters, navigation instruments, pressure gauges, radar, stud finders, antennas, and so many other devices and machines that we take for granted depend on sensors.

Sensors are all the rage in the hardware arena, and they’re a part of all sorts of different products, from cheap consumer products to high budget dedicated professional instruments. The big challenge, when it comes to adding more sensor-based features to our devices, is fitting them into small form factors such as smart phones and watches (and more futuristic wearables such as smart glasses). The increasing miniaturization and ability to combine several sensors in one tiny package is addressing that problem.

Sensors serve as the cornerstone for the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) and form a vital part of its ecosystem and infrastructure. IoT is, after all, all about data.  Consider one of the commonly presented examples of the IoT-based “smart” home of the future, where household appliances – TVs, refrigerators, ovens, washers and dryers, security systems, even your pets’ water bowls – are connected to the Internet.

What’s the advantage of having these devices online? The primary purpose is to be able to receive data from them, and then act on that information (often by sending commands back to them). Your refrigerator tells you that you’re low on milk and out of eggs completely, so you can stop by the store on your way home and pick up the needed groceries or – depending on just how sophisticated your futuristic scenario is – tell the fridge to send an order to the local grocery delivery service, which will fly your items in by drone just as you’re arriving home that evening.

But this whole set-up is dependent on that data that you received from the appliance regarding the current inventory of refrigerated consumables. How does the refrigerator know how much milk or how many eggs you have left?  That’s where sensors come in. There are several ways that sensors can be used to collect that information. This futuristic connected refrigerator will probably have weight-sensing areas that you can program to let it know what type of product goes there, so that when the weight of the milk cartoon gets to a certain level, it triggers the “need to buy more” message. There might be individual slots for eggs (as some refrigerators have now), and when all those slots show “empty,” you know that the eggs are all gone. Of course, sensors can also measure far more important things, such as people’s heart rates or blood pressure or other medical data, or whether there is smoke, gas, or carbon monoxide in the air.

According to some estimates, by the time the 2020s roll around (only four years from now), there might be as many as one trillion individual sensors busily collecting data on devices that are connected to the Internet. To put that into perspective, a trillion is one million millions. Or, if you prefer a visualization: a trillion one-dollar bills, stacked in a pile, would reach almost seventy-nine thousand miles high. That is an enormous number of sensors.

Some of those will be in wearable devices, which are finally gaining ground after years of mostly talk and no action. Fitness bands are becoming very popular, and smart watches are beginning to slowly but surely gain a following.  Sensors in these devices can count the steps you take and the stairs that you climb, track your heart rate, detect when you’re asleep and how deeply, and let you know when you’re being exposed to ultraviolet rays so you can protect yourself from sunburn. I got a Fitbit two years ago and swapped it for a Microsoft Band 2 last November; I feel just as lost without a sensor-laden electronic timepiece now as I do without my smart phone.

Speaking of phones, they are, of course, the vessel for many of these sensors. Today’s most sophisticated phone models have some or all of the following:

  • touch sensors (some of which can also detect differences in pressure)
  • accelerometers to control the vertical and the horizontal (only old sci-fi fans will “get” that one)
  • pedometers to track your steps
  • gyroscopes and motion sensors to detect gestures
  • temperature sensors
  • barometers to measure atmospheric pressure
  • magnetometers to detect magnetic fields so the phone can act as a compass
  • light sensors to measure ambient light and automatically adjust the display for comfort and best battery life
  • fingerprint sensors for multi-factor authentication

Of course, microphones and cameras are also sensors, and one phone (available only in Japan) even had a radiation detector, no doubt inspired by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.  Other sensor-based technologies that are included in a few phones or expected to be added to phones in the future include infrared sensors for night vision and thermal imagining, and perhaps someday even sensors to detect pollen count in the air or breath analysis sensors to detect alcohol levels.

Just imagine: someday your phone might be able to tell you whether you’ve had one too many to drive home – and automatically send a signal to your Internet-connected car to tell it not to start if you should get behind the wheel (your identity, of course, would be verified by the car’s fingerprint or facial recognition sensor).  This is only one example of the Brave New World that a proliferation of sensors could usher in.

Many will see such a scenario as a scary possibility, an impending loss of liberty and autonomy. On the flip side, sensors in your phone or wearable may also be able to detect, for example, when a diabetic’s blood sugar level rises too high or falls too low, giving the person time to seek medical assistance or apply self-treatment before it becomes more serious. Sensors, like all technological developments, can be used for good or evil. Development of more and better sensors can enhance our quality of life or make our existence miserable. The only thing that’s a sure bet is that sensors will play an even more prominent role in those lives in the future than they already do today, so it’s a trend that’s well worth watching.

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