Top ten sensors to further develop or add to the smart phone

I have touched upon this subject before: sensors in smart phones. In my opinion, the development towards implementing the all-round tricorder has somewhat halted. Phone manufacturers are focusing on improving speed, power consumption, standby-time, etc., which of course is good, but the driver is not that clear to me. Surf faster on your favorite news web portal? Watch youtube videos? Play in-app purchase games? Take photos with crap cameras? Ubiquitous computing?

So, where is all that useful stuff? The things that would make your phone a real companion in your back pocket. To be used in the kitchen, during the walk in the forest, when DIY-ing or mcgyvering, etc.

In this post, I list the Top Ten sensors (well, …) I would like to see implemented in a phone quite soon. As far as I can see, a lot of technology and hardware is already there, so why not start expanding and combining it?

With that said, some of the listed sensors already today exist as 2nd- and/or 3rd-party products that can be attached to, or wirelessly connect to your phone. But still, integration would be desired. Further on, some of the applications for the different listed sensors do overlap, I am aware of that, but they could also be complemeting each other and further strengthen the combination.

image01With the risk of missing some, but to the best of my understanding, the following sensors are available on the Samsung Galaxy S5:

  • Vision (Camera)
  • Sound (Microphone)
  • Location (GPS)
  • Accelerometer
  • Gyroscope
  • Gravity
  • Light (Diode)
  • Orientation (Compass)
  • Magnetic field
  • Atmospheric pressure
  • Proximity (diode)
  • (Notably missing: Thermometer and Humidity – available in Samsung S4, though)

which are perhaps more than one would first think is actually found in your phone. On Google Play some of these sensors are utilized for first-order versions of the sensors listed below. However, the accuracy is quite low and it calls for improvements. See the snapshot from one of the apps in the play store.

I have deliberately not put focus on health sensors, such as heartbeat, etc. There a lot of things are happening and would probably fill this list by themselves: spirometer, oxymeter, and so on. I have not listed mind-reading devices and polygraphs either, for that matter, and notably omitting the age detector.

(Doppler) Radar

image02Some week ago I had a visit by Prof. Dag T Wisland from Oslo University and Novelda AS in Norway. Novelda manufacturers a low-power ultra-wideband radar module, the Xethru. See their web page at https://www.xethru.com/ The device consumes 120mW and is comparatively compact. (This is the transceiver, additional computing is of course required by SoC and software in apps).

Novelda suggests more practical applications by utilizing the phase shift due to the doppler effect: presence detection, respiration detection, etc. Place your phone on the kitchen table and use it as an alarm. Wake-up detector for your sleeping children.

Or, why not become an expert in finding the beams and wiring and pipes behind the wall? That would impress your spouse (well, …) if you can assemble that IKEA wardrobes and fit to the wall without any mishaps. Bosch offers these kind of devices:

I want that integrated with my smart phone – and imagine what a cool app you could have.

Ultrasonic transceiver

Using an ultrasonic transceiver is quite a similar idea to the one above, I guess: a way to look inside objects. I admit, if it is used to see inside your body, the phone might become a bit gooey when you put that conductive gel on. But in fact, ultrasound can be used for other things: ranging, non-destructive inspection to look for cracks, and even communication.

Could the plummer use it to inspect the pipes after welding? Could the home-cook use it to check the bread – has it proved enough?

With ultrasonic microphones and speakers in e.g. a room, the phone can be used to quite accurately find out its own position and also the positions of other objects. The optimum sheng fui garage could finally become true:

Thermometer

I would like a more accurate thermometer (and in S5 I do not have one anyway). Now and then we need to take the  temperature and check for a fever or so (hard to push the phone into your ear though, but nevertheless). Also the ambience temperature is of interest. It could be a matter of logging the temperature in my  house to adjust the indoor temperature or opt for closing a window. This could be used to lower the energy consumption in my house (assuming that your already-installed heating system is not optimized). But also more practical things: what is the temperature of my christmas caramel? Or bakery in general.

Some apps are already available on Google Play and small ambient thermometers are for example sold by http://thermodo.com/ in Denmark. Similar devices are available for ear thermometers. Powered and read out through the audio interface.

The thermometer does not necessarily need to be a thermistor, but could also be supported by IR camera – if it would be portable enough. Products for smart phones are already sold by eg.

Photo- and laser diodes measuring longer distances and angles

Now and then I need to align some paintings or shelves to be mounted on a wall. Or find the center point on a wall, beneath a painting, or similar. This would be a way to complement the plane leveling-alignment laser, like for example Bosch sells too. There are apps measuring angles and distances given a couple of photos, gyro settings, etc.

image00

With more intelligent software (and hardware) to control the laser pointer we could have the device “paint” the target on the wall directly. Let the phone auto-orient by identifying points through the camera or ultrasonic localization. Angles, distances, etc., could be measured and stored. Cleverly combining the diode and the camera could offer you to measure distances of complex objects.

A square box could indicate the boundaries for the placement of your latest diploma. The laser could be used to paint the actual time in the roof above your bed. It could be used for games and entertainment of many kinds. (But that is on the other hand not the path we want to go down in this post).

Vibrations

Already today, vibrations can be picked up by the accelerometer of the phone, and there is academic work out there describing how the accelerometer can be used for the purpose. For example, measuring the vibrations of machinery can be used to monitor the structural health of the device.

For more domestic applications the vibration in the washing machine could be logged to determine when the machine is ready. Earthquakes or traffic vibration, or for the handyman to check vibrations in pipes and ventilation could be used.

Perhaps it could be used in the car to detect and report quality of the road and in general give feedback on your car’s health and guide you towards service of the car.

Moisture

The Samsung S4, for example, sports a humidity sensor. Use a phone to check the humidity health of your house or crowd-sense data and upload to the weather services. While sleeping at night or idling – let the phone collect information while still charging and doing nothing useful.

Those with sensitive skin are dependent on a healthy humidity level. With your phone you could more actively control a humidifier and let it adjust the level as per your presence in the house. Active humidification!

Metal detector

The phone does already today offer a magnetic sensor that can detect the field and disturbances in the force. The magnetic sensor in the phone will vary with presence of objects that alter the magnetic field. With the metal detector we can look for nails behind the wall, electrical wiring, pipes, “lost” wedding rings in the sand, etc.

Imagine you could finally get that superman power and see straight through objects. (Unless it is cryptonite, of course)! An xray could do the job for you, but I admit it would be hard to implement since you need to have a detector on the other side of the object or perhaps rely on microwaves and ultrasonic inspection. Then we’re back on list items 1 and 2 above.

Still though it would be practical to have right in the palm of your hand.

2016-02-29 11.10.24Scale

Weighing things has been integral for quite some time now. And wouldn’t it be good to be able to measure the correct amount of sugar for your cake? Pour up the sugar in a bowl and put it on the phone. Remove the bowl and the weight is displayed in the window.

In fact, a few phones (like my Samsung S5) does have a (air) pressure sensor and indirectly it could be used to measure the weight. In fact, there are (of course) apps out there that implement this – to a limited degree of success, perhaps. But who’s to blame, the handles are not really in place yet.

One would argue: why put an expensive phone in the kitchen and expose it to to water, fat, and grease? Good question, but consider this: the Sony Experia E4G, now cost approximately $70 dollars in Sweden. It is not water proof, but that’s semantics. The price is low and almost expendable.

Gas

Gas could be dangerous. Anyone who lives with (or works in the same cubicle as) someone that enjoys baked beans, onion, and lentils know that by now. Jokes aside. Mould, fungus, and moist could also be dangerous to your health (and to your house). A gas sensor in your phone would be able to sniff around the house and report any levels of strange gases.

To no surprise (?) there are third-party devices that can be connected to your smart phone to do the job. For example sensorcon, http://sensorcon.com/, does this. In fact, they have a sensor package that can do quite a few analysis in parallel.

At home, the gas sensor can also be used to detect smoke, checking if the cinnamon rolls are done or not, or indicating if you used too much perfume (or too little deodorant).

Spectroscopy

With a spectrometer you can measure the contents of a “foreign” object. See for example what Analog Devices currently is developing together with an Israeli startup :  a set of “market hand-held scanners that can be pointed at food or medicine to detect what’s inside.”

This is close to what the tricorder could do in the star trek movies. Just let the device scan the object and see what it is made of.  Other devices are suggested by commercial entities out there, such as the near infra-red spectrometer.

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