Why more sensors makes sense for us all

Thorsten Stremlau

Monday 17 July 2017

Thorsten Stremlau, Lenovo’s WW Principal IT Architect, on how sensor technology has evolved and how it could even save your life.

Sensors have always helped humans interact better with machines and technology. But what started as a way to make computers more efficient is quickly becoming a potentially lifesaving feature.

How cars have led the way

To see how sensors have proliferated, just look at the car market. Sensors like oil pressure and temperature gauges have been used for decades for purely functional purposes, but now we’re seeing all kinds of new sensors that make the driving experience safer and easier. To mention just a few, sensors now check if the driver is falling asleep, if they veer out of lane, if a car is next to them when they try to change lanes, and if it’s raining so the windscreen wipers can start.

In IT and personal computing, more sensors means even more user benefits.

Unlocking the potential

The earliest computer sensors were pretty primitive. Basically they told the fan to speed up or slow down based on how hot the CPU was. And that was it.

In the early 2000s, Lenovo added more sensors to its ThinkPad range. For example, a shock and movement sensor detected if the laptop had been dropped, and made sure the hard disc drive could park its heads to prevent it being damaged when it hit the ground. It was also sensitive enough to know if someone picked up the laptop up when it was locked, so it could trigger an alarm that someone might be trying to steal it.

Our temperature sensors were so accurate that one construction company used them to check on the status of their containers. With a laptop in each, they could tell if there was a fire in a container, or if the heating had broken. People were discovering the potential of these sensors by utilising them beyond their intended uses.

Sensors for security

One of the biggest uses is security. For example, we’re building the RealSense camera into our devices, which kits them out with an infrared channel. This means you can take 3D photos and even measure blood flow just by pointing it at someone. This lets you determine whether it’s an actual person using the device, or just a picture of someone attempting to deceive it.

Not only that, the device reads the user’s heartbeat and pulse, which are unique to them. This could become a more sophisticated form of facial recognition, replacing passwords, and also be useful for distance learning program authentications (to prove it’s you taking the exam and not, for example, a friend).

Using the microphone and existing wireless technology, the device can establish the context you’re in – detecting if you are working quietly or whether someone else is in the same room.

Obviously, this is useful for home security, as the sensor will detect if someone breaks in or goes where they shouldn’t. But it will also make our home and work lives easier – it could make your computer wake up, log you in and order your car door to open, all as you approach.

Add a wearable like a smartband or smartwatch to the mix, and you could tell where people are and monitor their pulse, so you’d know if someone was trying to impersonate them.

Other types of sensors are on the horizon. Earbuds just like the ones that encase your headphones can measure your ear cavity pressure, which is unique to you. Combine this with facial and voice recognition tech and heartbeat monitoring, and you have a foolproof way of identifying someone.

Improving our health

Sensors called biosniffers are already helping people live healthier lives. As soon as they’re incorporated into smartphones, more people will use them on a daily basis, and hence make better informed decisions about their diet and health.

For example, biosniffers can monitor your breath and detect a range of conditions and diseases, including different types of cancer, tuberculosis and low or high blood sugar. They may even detect an impending heart attack by seeing if you have a high incidence of acetone and pentane in your breath. This isn’t detectable to the naked nose, but a biosniffer will have no trouble picking it up.

Other sensors will tell you what’s in your food, detect gluten (handy if you have an intolerance) and sense whether your fruit and vegetables are fresh or are going off.

Sensor technology has come a long way since it was used to stop our laptops overheating. If we can give consumers enough information to use these technologies responsibly, they could improve the quality of life for everyone, both at home and at work.

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