As the year draws to an end, one can’t help but be in awe of all that’s been achieved in the world of technology this year. While all sectors have undergone a plethora of improvements, we’re seeing a diminishing of the boundaries between the physical and digital realms. The Quantified Self movement, lifelogging, wearable technology and smartphones – all these spheres have one major thing in common – a sensor. Sensor sizes have reduced, they have become more power efficient and can sense a wide gamut of parameters – 2015 has undoubtedly, been the year of the sensor.
So in this article, I look ahead and try and frame out what could be the state of sensors in 2016: what are the developments that can be expected in the world of sensors, and how these developments can in turn affect the Quantified Self movement.
SENSORS: THE SCENE IN 2015
A key fundamental that I observed in smartphones in 2015 was the inclusion of sensors – primarily fingerprint scanners. While 2014 flagships had heart rate sensors as the USP, 2015 was all about incorporating the fingerprint sensor in the smartphone.
Main reasons for this trend include:
• An increased emphasis on the privacy: A fingerprint sensor would imply a new dimension of security.
• Smarter payment system authorisation: Wireless payments through services such as Apple Pay and Android Pay are becoming more popular, and to facilitate more secure payments, a fingerprint sensor is being included.
• Better accessibility: A fingerprint sensor, specially when it is sitting below the rear camera module, can double up as an additional key. This is suitable for clicking photographs with ease and also unlocking the device quickly.
When it comes to wearables though, sensors are not merely focusing on privacy, but also usability. Fitness and sleep trackers are becoming more robust and minute, which is leading on to two new developments:
• Wearables are becoming smaller, and hence they are becoming more non obtrusive to the user, owing to the diminished size of the sensors within them.
• Wearables are becoming more versatile, with the ability to track a range of parameters within a single device.
WHAT CAN BE EXPECTED IN 2016
While 2015 was all about developing sensors for the mobile and wearable platform, we haven’t really seen them being applied in many other use cases. Of course, there have been developments in Internet of Things, but all in all the world of sensors was inclined mainly towards lifelogging devices and smartphones.
I expect this observation to undergo a drastic change in 2016. Already, we’re hearing of companies and startups working to incorporate sensors into a whole bigger variety of devices and applications. Sensors will become even more versatile, and will have the ability to convert an object of regular usage into a smart electronic device.
Hexoskin is a firm whose developments I’m really looking forward to. Smart clothing is in a way one of the most innovative and simplified use case of a sensor tracking health stats, and Hexoskin is a company working in that direction.
In fact, the Canadian smart wearable company has just won a contract with the Canadian Space Agency to develop the On Astronaut Wireless Sensor (OAWSS) – which would monitor the vitals of space travellers and astronauts. Using a biocompatible adhesive, the OAWSS wireless sensors can be slapped on the clothing to record and transmit data in real time.
In fact, smart clothing can not just be applied to astronauts. Motus is another concept which is actually working in the sector of strapping wearable trackers to the shoes and clothes of sportspeople to track their vital stats while they’re on the field.
The Motus sensors collect data regarding the mechanics of the body, along with the muscular stats and workloads for the muscles. Based on the data collected, the accompanied application actually suggests practice and workout routines which would be beneficial for the athlete.
Smart clothing is a segment which I am really interested in. I believe that an athlete would actually require personal, unified data regarding the vital stats, to improve him/her self. And this would also apply to pilots, astronauts and other people working in harsh conditions, so that data regarding the health parameters can be tracked seamlessly. I’m looking forward to more developments in 2016, as far as sensors and smart clothing is concerned.
SENSORS FOR THE SKIN
While the Quantified Self movement has been mainly focused with tracking the fitness, sleep and physical activities, there hasn’t really been a device which tracks the hygiene levels, or influences it through the principles associated with lifelogging.
In this regard, there’s this cool wearable I came across called Mapo. Mapo is a face mask that is made out of medical grade silicon and is filled with sensors, which track the skin’s temperature and measure the moisture levels. The data gathered by the sensors is sent to the dedicated application via Bluetooth. Accordingly, the application will suggest on methods to cleanse and improve the skin’s quality.
Okay, while the use case might be restricted to beauty or skin remedies, the sensor technology can be pretty cool. Measuring temperature and moisture content – what if this can be applied to other cases? For example, taking into consideration the temperature and moisture content of greenhouses to facilitate a more efficient crop production?
Actually, while we’re on crops…
SENSORS FOR FRUITS AND VEGGIES
I came across this news article some time back, and it’s pretty amazing. The fundamental is this: consumers can use their smartphones to know the freshness content of the fruits and vegetables that are available at the local supermarket.
This combines two technologies actually: One would be sensors, obviously, which use spectroscopy to gather data regarding the freshness of a crop’s produce. The size of the sensors used in spectroscopy have been diminished to minuscule proportions, which can enable them to be integrated into anything.
Which brings us to the second technology in this regard – drones. Drones could use the spectroscopic sensors and fly around a field, taking in all the data there is to show regarding the quality of the crop produce, the prevalence of diseases and other such parameters.
This will be one field (pun intended) where sensors would definitely help out. If crop diseases are detected earlier, corrective action can be taken in time to maintain the efficiency of the produce. This in turn can be linked to the dependency on foreign countries for import of fruits and vegetables, export rates, self sufficiency and the overall GDP of the country.
It is a domino effect of improvement, which can be initiated through a single, tiny sensor.
GOOGLE’S PROJECT SOLI
This was demonstrated in Google I/O 2015, and we expect it to be making its way into the mainstream market in 2016. Project Soli is basically centred around an interaction sensor which uses radar to translate subtle hand movements into gesture controls for electronic devices.
The possibilities of this project is endless. We’ve already spoken about accessibility services before, and how they are important for enriching the smartphone experience for the differently abled. Now imagine if concepts such as Project Soli were implemented, it would radically change the way electronics are designed.
As of now, we have products such as Leap Motion and Microsoft’s Kinect system which can sense human body movements. While these are mainly revolving around novelty or gaming based sectors, the reach can be extended to far more than just that.
Remotely controlling electronics through hand gestures could in a way make devices around us smarter. It would provide a huge impetus to the IOT movement, and devices would just need to feature a sensor and the requisite software prowess in order to gauge the user’s needs. Sensor technology such as Project Soli would also in a way affect the future of driverless and connected cars.
It’s really amazing once you fathom the range of improvements and developments which can be accomplished through one small sensor.
SENSORS IN MEDICINE
Sensors will be getting a whole lot smarter in the sphere of medicine. Take for example sensors for prosthetic limbs. Artificial limbs can be affixed to amputees, but simple stimuli such as touch, texture and temperature can’t be felt in conventional artificial limbs.
This might change in 2016. A company called SynTouch is developing a BioTac sensor which senses not just the pressure or temperature, but also the reaction of a material to the human touch. The trick in feeling things is not just how the material’s texture or dynamics are, but also how the material responds to the human touch, and this sensors hopes to bridge that gap.
Tactic sensing would be the next big thing for sensors in prosthetic limbs. Already, standards are being developed for different materials and their textures, and tactic sensors, when incorporated into prosthetic limbs, would enrich the experience of touch for amputees.
Beyond sensors for prosthetic limbs, come sensors in diagnostics. A new sensor is being developed at the University of Toronto that would provide a greater accuracy in pH measurement. This sensor would actually help in diagnosing a plethora of diseases and medical conditions, including cancer.
Much like the concept used to detect diseases in crops, this technology too utilises spectroscopy to fathom the disease condition and the pH levels. These sensors can be used not just in medical imaging devices, but also in environmental science, biology and food studies, including the study of crop health that I’ve discussed previously.
POWER SOURCE FOR THE SENSORS
Now while we’re discussing the wide use cases of sensors, one thing is of paramount importance – what will be the power source for the sensors?
Battery life is one of the key design considerations which goes in most of the decisions while designing a smartphone or any electronic product for that matter. In fact, one of the main reasons for the widespread popularity of wearables such as the Mi Band has been the long battery life – which extends to more than 45 days!
So, back to the concerning topic, power source ideas?
Back in August, some Dutch researchers built a tiny wireless temperature sensor which derives its power source in the form of radio waves, which also make up the wireless medium through which the sensor communicates. Network based power would have quite a lot of potential for sensors, for it would practically make the sensor a power free device – owing to the constant exposure of the sensor to radio waves.
Sensors such as these could influence the way home automation devices, such as Nest and Hive, are built. They would also affect the IOT sector, since the Internet of Things works with sensors at the base level.
It is without a doubt that the sensor market will grow to tremendous proportions in the coming year. And this will affect not just the Quantified Self, but also the way how consumer electronics are designed, how the Internet of Things will look like, and how data will be captured and used. For after all, sensors are the windows to the physical world, and in 2016 they might actually bridge the physical and digital realms together.