Computerworld

Welcome to a world of sensors

By David Knight

Increasingly, we live in a sensor-laden world. Almost every electronic device in our lives has some kind of sensor in it, possibly many. We don’t tend to think of sensors when looking at our phones, refrigerators, cars, airplanes and buildings, but believe me, they’re in there.

And increasingly, we’re going to be aware of them. They’re going to take on forms – and be embedded in places – that we haven’t experienced before. And it’s going to be remarkable.

Your home as a sensor suite

Even if it’s not leaping out at you upon walking through the front door, your domicile is already armed with sensors. Appliances of all sizes and types, televisions, video game consoles, home computers and more operate using sensors of many kinds.

Among the most interesting home sensor types is audio, and the queen of audio in the home is Alexa. Entering the home in the form of the sleek black obelisk called Echo, millions of consumers have welcomed this cloud/artificial intelligence-based “super assistant,” which is based on a strong audio interface. Expect audio to be used in new and clever ways to determine what’s happening in an environment, along with other sensor types that will enhance life around the house.

Your office as a sensor hub

Offices are beginning their gradual evolution into “smart centers.” Buildings, cubicles, conference rooms and kitchens are being infiltrated by increasingly intelligent devices intended to make the workplace more comfortable, cost-efficient and productive.

We’re now seeing “smart buildings” start to evolve, beginning with climate control, physical security, lighting and eventually individualized tenant experiences. One prototype system “follows” you around an office floor, adjusting lighting and temperature as you move. Another installation tells office workers when the downstairs cafeteria is filling up, so that they can decide when it’s a good time to get lunch.

Such implementations take advantage of the myriad sensors being installed (often for other purposes) as physical-world inputs to inform applications at both individual and environmental levels.

Your car as a rolling sensor platform

Automobiles have employed sensors for decades in their operation, primarily for engine efficiency, pollution control, stability, traction and braking. A typical car generates more than 70 sensor data feeds, and high-end models can produce upwards of 300. These are used internally, within the vehicle systems themselves. There hasn’t been a straightforward means to send the sensor data from the vehicle to the outside world, where it could be used for any number of vehicular and non-vehicular applications.

That’s changing rapidly with newer car models having onboard data transceivers. Eventually, the various sensor outputs will be sent across a car’s internal communications bus to those data transceivers, opening up entirely new opportunities for accessing these “rolling sensor platforms” and thus new advents in safety, logistics and smart city applications.

Literally, just as satellites fly over the landscape looking down with sensors to capture what’s happening on the Earth’s surface, we’ll see moving vehicles function in much the same way.

Your city as a sensor landscape

The term “smart cities” has been bandied about to the point of saturation, yet the reality of technologically and functionally integrated municipalities barely exists. There have been numerous pilot programs, but few have made the jump to permanence and useful scale. We’re on the cusp of seeing these transition into applications that can benefit cities and the humans operating within them.

One of the fastest-growing segments is intelligent street lighting. Municipalities, on time frames that usually have to do with replacing aging infrastructure, are finding that it’s becoming cost-effective to remove old street lights entirely and install fully digital lighting.

One of the key drivers is the availability of LED-based units that provide far lower operating costs and incredible longevity as compared with gas-filled bulbs of the past. And many of these state-of-the-art units come bristling with sensors such as audio, proximity, imaging, air quality monitoring, temperature and other potentially useful types. So look for leaps in the amount of information that can be culled from fixtures around cities, essentially as an extension of what’s happening with buildings and cars.

YOU as a sensor environment

Welcome, Cyborg. It’s already happening. We humans are gradually merging with the digital world. I’ll bet that you know where your phone is at all times. Probably more so than where your children are. It’s astounding that in 10 years we have come to cherish and never part with a small piece of technology that now links us to the entire world. It’s not yet embedded under the skin or in our cerebral cortex, but anything is possible.

Add as evidence the rapid uptake of wearables. If you have a Fitbit or Apple Watch on your wrist, you’re already strapped with sensors. The output of your phone’s sensors and wearables often ends up in the cloud, where the data can be mined not only to your own benefit, but to others’ as well.

Whole organizations as sensor platforms

Companies, nonprofits, government agencies and institutions of learning are all generating huge quantities of sensor information, with no signs of slowing. In fact, the opportunities that lie in capturing that data and cross-correlating it with other inputs will undoubtedly lead to entirely new applications, companies and probably industries.

As an example, look at ride sharing: Until enough of us started carrying smartphones, and the phones included built-in GPS chipsets, and wireless data became widely practical in terms of both coverage and rate plans, you couldn’t offer Lyft or Uber in a cost-efficient, user-friendly way. The same will happen, arguably at a far greater scale, with the ubiquitous integration of inexpensive sensors in and across virtually every area of our lives.

Reality checks and balances

While all of this is amazing and exciting to contemplate, there are a few big elephants in the room: Look for future postings on issues including rights management and chains of liability for personal and commercially generated sensor data, and of course, privacy.

It’s undoubtedly going to be interesting as this evolves, with the total infiltration and integration of the internet of, well, everything.

 

This article was written by David Knight from Computerworld and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.