SINCE time immemorial man has struggled ( and failed to some extent ) to replicate and improve his five core sensory senses in a bid to understand his environment better. For his eyes, he has struggled and strived to recreate and replace them with smart surveillance and integrated imaging systems. For his ears, he has come up with up intuitive, super-smart and responsive auditory sensors which have found a sweet spot in our smartphones, tablets, and other sophisticated voice-recognition systems. For his replicate his touch acuity, he now has a plethora of smart screens and gesture-controlled gizmos that are slowly cropping up the augmented reality ( AR ) backdrop in his disposal.
And the list goes on to encompass even the least-expected sensory features such as motion, acceleration, and biometrics. If anything, the only thing left to complete the story is the blueprint for the first fully independent and functional robotic machine. However, as usual, the most remarkable part is not in the end-product itself – but rather in the transformative process that it takes to carve out a complex sensor system from a simple idea.
Speaking of which, it takes an informed mind to tell the difference between a basic, regular sensor and a smart sensor. Note that for the purposes of this discussion and analysis, we will be zooming in our cameras to smart sensors only.
. What is a Smart Sensor?
A smart sensor has all the components of a regular sensor ( including the sensing component, signal conditioner, and processing unit ), but in addition to this, clever circuit designers have gifted it with the capability of interpreting and processing signals. If you’re wondering how this comes about, it is courtesy of an onboard microprocessor that allows it the luxury of dishing out more coherent and ‘accurate’ output.
So to make things a little bit clearer consider this quick example/comparison: The simple everyday thermostat in your kitchen’s refrigerator is a sensor – for all intents and purposes. However, apart of from automating the on-and-off power process, it barely does anything more. In fact, if you were to interfere with its fine calibration, it would do the exact opposite of what it is meant to do. Now that’s a regular sensor.
On the other side of the spectrum, the seamless integration of a microprocessor to an existing thermostat in a smart home hub, for instance, makes it a smart sensor. That it, apart from simply ‘sensing’ and controlling the temperature, it can also offer ‘solutions’ and ‘suggestions’ to the occupants within.
Now, with that out of the way, any interested person at this point is most probably toying with the imagination of how the future would be if were to advance the current smart sensors systems technology to a full-blown and massive concept. Well, if that sounds like you, sit back and let us immerse you in the world of unlimited possibilities in various modern lifestyle facets as far as smart sensors go.
We’ve all ( arguably ) heard and interacted with ‘wearables’. If anything, wearables can easily be said to be the height of the advancement of the sensory technology itself. However, there’s a new twist to it. And the innovation is spilling beyond your ordinary, everyday smartwatch or fitness health band. The latest addition that really has tongues wagging is the inception of the wearables in healthcare. We’re not just talking about those fancy Fitbit or Garmin Vivofit bracelet that everyone seems to have nowadays. The real gem is the inclusion of smart sensor systems in alleviating the common and daily woes that we face every day.
Take, for instance, the innovative and super-intuitive Quell Relief that was announced last year’s ( 2015 ) spring. The device, which some of us may mistake for an ordinary knee brace, packs an array of sensors that are in turn linked to a companion app. So not only will the user enjoy the pain-relieving properties of having a well-constructed knee brace, but also savor the perks of having an intuitive product as part and parcel of your daily artillery. And this is just is the cream of the amazing possibilities that smart sensors are availing to the healthcare industry.
Even more recently, HealthPatch unveiled a new system that is aimed at helping professionals keep tabs on the vitals of their patients remotely. If you like, you can equate this to feeling, hearing and observing – though electronically. The ‘health patch’ in question is basically a reusable biosensor that consists of a combination of ECG electrodes and three axis accelerometers designed for keeping track of vital information such as a patient’s breathing, heart rate, temperature or even body-position. The information gathered is then relayed to the medic or caregiver in question, from then which they can act accordingly. Now, if such a smart sensor system were to be fully developed, it would eliminate the need for unnecessary inpatient units and instead, dedicate these valuable resources to patients who really require close-up, intensive 24-hour care.
And the list in endless. We haven’t even mentioned advanced systems such as diagnostic imaging and digital health. Take Google Smart Contact Lenses, for example. Remember how years ago people with diabetes used to endure uncomfortable blood sugar ‘analysis’ sessions after every two weeks. Soon, this will be a thing of the past if Google’s latest innovative efforts in the healthcare niche is anything to consider. The Giant American technology company has teamed up with a Swiss-based pharmaceutical company (Novartis ) to design contact lenses for people suffering from diabetes. Strange as it may sound, the contact lenses are engineered to analyze a patient tears and estimate, albeit accurately, their glucose levels. Although this exceptional innovation is still being fine-tuned by Google, there’s no denying the endless possibilities ( e.g., restoring a person’s eye autofocus ) that it would avail on our laps if the project was to be fully developed.
Now onto the media and consumer electronics industry that is loved and loathed in equal measure.
We live in a world that ‘lives’ and revolves around communication and data flow. That’s partly the reason you’re on this blog at this exact moment. So if there’s an area where we shouldn’t be forgiven for expecting and predicting a palpable revolution brought about by smart sensors, then it should be in consumer electronics and communication industry.
The fruits are already showing. Last time I checked I didn’t need a manual passcode to lock and unlock my iPhone, my phone knows me – either through a facial recognition system or fingerprint scanner. And neither did I need an entanglement of cables ( by the way, it is hazardous ) to watch ‘cable’ television. I no longer need an additional remote control unit to flip through channels. Who needs to keep losing and searching for an evasive remote control unit when the IR blaster atop my smartphone can do just fine?
We haven’t even thrown in the motion and gesture control fancy that is slowly transforming how we interact with our gadgets. While global electronic leaders such as Samsung and Sony are busy crafting motion controlled smart TVs, the Taiwan dinosaurs HTC are busy looking for ways to advance their expected flagship the M10 for it to feature at least one cool, gimmicky motion-based control unlocking feature. Apple, not forgetting their massive wallet, hasn’t been left out either. Only time can tell how the iPhone 10s – 5 years from today – will be capable of doing. Heck, maybe even self-type it’s own messages without relying on your voice for input or read our respondent’s thoughts! For your information, already, the spanking new and prestigious Lumia 950 line boasts of an iris-recognition system. Well, only time can tell what type of handsets we will have by 2050.
Aside from that…
The most notable change that is yet to hit many unprepared is the machine-to-machine communication technology that is slowly gathering steam. You see, human beings have for a long time prided themselves on being the only beings that can communicate coherently as well as exchange ideas. For instance, wouldn’t you feel a bit edgy is you woke up tomorrow only to find your microwave exchanging steamy messages with your fridge or smart TV? No, don’t even get me started on data telemetry systems that are heralded to shepherd the future of the autonomous vehicular managements systems. Think this is impossible? Have you ever used your phone’s NFC sensor to pay for goods or services? That right there is one of the foundations on which the principle of machine-to-machine communication will be built on.
A few years back, a small-time startup tech firm in Africa, Kenya to be specific, showcased a smart greenhouse model that awed investors and left a section of them with eyeballs rolling. The whole concept was automated with the help of bio-sensors and the set-up tied together with a robust Wi-Fi connectivity. The clever setup was staged to allow rurally based farmers, for instance, to keep track of the operating and prevailing conditions in their farms remotely and without necessarily wasting so much time in otherwise mundane maintenance practices such as irrigation, PH and temperature regulation. The model is a reflection of how far communication can be stretched out if we can find a way of merging our already modern and super-efficient communication structures with the plethora of emerging smart sensor systems.
There’s no disputing that how we choose to commute defines us. That’s why the biggest players in the automotive industry are in a duel to release the smart next-gen car before the close of the first quarter of the 21-st century. Here, we are not talking about cars with self-deployed airbags or fancy reverse-parking sensors. Those barely scratch the surface and can hardly be referred to as smart sensor system in this day and age.
We’re talking about something bigger – self-driven vehicles.
Already Google has proved to be worth it’s posh Mountain View, CA headquarters by staying way ahead of the competition with first fully-fledged and promising autonomous car concept. And while Tesla and Apple are busy playing catch up, rumors are rife that the Japanese auto conglomerate Toyota and German perfectionists Mercedes-Benz have a thing or two up their sleeves.
Although there is a ton of safety regulations and concerns that are likely to stall and shelf the development of the concept of self-driving for the next 100 years, there’s no doubt that a multitude of smart sensors will form the backdrop of the world’s first self-driven car.
4. Defense and Military
The world’s political and economic front is growing more volatile by day. Look at Syria, North Korea, and Eastern Europe, for instance – just to name a few. And since the discovery and development of nuclear warheads, the world’s superpowers have taken the fight to a whole new level, literally. The latest battle involves developing smart sensor systems that can detect and ‘smell out’ a brewing military assault before it even happens. Not just smoking out anti-radar aircraft missiles but also pinpointing aggressive spots and hitting them accurately hence averting collateral damage.
“The modern warfare of the future will not be won by raw military might but by the smart and strategic deployment of concentrated force.”
The war drums are already sounding. The US, whose military budget outstrips the combined expenditure of the South Korea, the UK, and France, is reportedly working on a Smart Dust Military Deployment system that employs an unseen wireless network of nanoscale sensors that are informally known as ‘motes’. Apparently, Motes are designed to be dispersed and scattered across war zones by UAVs to gather intel on the enemy surreptitiously. Talk of redefined espionage carte blanche!
. The Bottom Line
As it always with anything touching on technology, the main stage is always hard to predict. The action behind the scene is even harder to anticipate. For example, we might not have flying cars yet as predicted in the 70s and 80s but we have super smartphones whose processing power was unimaginable 40 years ago. We still don’t have ‘robotic slaves’ in our homes, but we now swallow ingestible smart pills instead. Therefore, we can only keep our fingers crossed that the future is only going to get better, a little less predictive but overall more surprising.
Keep it tuned here for more on the latest unfoldings in the tech arena.