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Environmental Sensors Moving to Widespread Adoption in Consumer Products

Having spent the better part of four days on my feet in the Bosch-Sensortec booth at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I can say that the subsequent press coverage is absolutely correct in declaring that wearable technology did indeed dominate the proceedings. Surprising? Not really.

Despite the hype, the wearables sector has been stagnant for some time now, and leaving out trailblazers such as Jawbone and Fitbit, it is fair to say that innovation in this space has suffered at the expense of smartphone development and mobile software applications.

But all that is about to change. The intense focus on improving the smartphone user experience has driven the development of low-cost, ultra small, sophisticated motion and environmental sensors, which are now powering the next generation of wearable technology. The new platforms have not just reinvented the concept of the watch, but turned wrists, arms, heads, and ankles into anchor points for new navigation, fitness, health, and gaming products.

As a leading supplier of 3/6/9 axis motion sensors to the consumer electronics sector, we see that orientation, motion tracking, and related data fusion software dominates smartphone applications, and not surprisingly, this functionality is now finding its way into the heart of the new wearable products.

Interestingly, judging by several discussions at CES with developers and recent customer inquiries, wearable technology and related applications are also likely to accelerate the uptake and adoption of environmental sensors into the next generation of wearable technology platforms.

The reasoning is not immediately obvious, and requires a different line of thinking. The classic view of the environmental sensor group, primarily pressure, humidity, and temperature, immediately points to the personal weather station application as an obvious candidate for wearable platforms, so nothing new here. But taking a closer look, environmental sensor and motion data can be, and is being, combined in ways that will significantly increase the sophistication of the data fusion algorithms embedded in wearable platforms, enhancing navigation, augmented reality, gesturing, and body function monitoring.

To illustrate this alternative line of thinking, consider indoor navigation. For this application, clearly 9 axis motion and orientation sensing is a given, but adding a pressure sensor gives a 10th dimension for tracking vertical movement. In combination, an accelerometer can compensate for pressure sensor offsets, and vice versa.

From a sensor processing perspective, while accurate relative pressure measurement requires filtering of pressure spikes such as those created by opening a door, window, or sudden movement, such spikes can also, for example, indicate significant motion when a device has been picked up or moved. For another example, while the classic use case for a humidity sensor is the weather station, humidity sensing can be used in presence detection to indicate human proximity.

Essentially, environmental sensor technology enables a new line of thinking for established use cases. In addition to cost and size, from a sensor perspective, what is needed is a step up in performance in terms of accuracy and response times. As one developer put it, “Think of human skin, and our ability to quickly sense proximity or movement through an environment via the sensations of heat, air, and moisture. Then you'll see the potential.”

While realizing that full potential may be some way off, the BMP280 pressure sensor and BME280 humidity and pressure combo sensor from the Bosch Sensortec portfolio sensor offer that step up in size and performance required to enable the next generation of innovative applications. And judging by the feedback from the development community, the future is bright for these two devices in smartphone and wearable technology platforms.

19 comments on “Environmental Sensors Moving to Widespread Adoption in Consumer Products

  1. Davidled
    February 24, 2014

    I wonder if these sensors could be used in the vehicle. Also, I am curious what is the different between existing sensor of other product and BMP/BME.  I heard that a few customers does not expect any more features from Smartphone.

  2. samicksha
    February 25, 2014

    BMP280 is good example here, oneof the very feature is find here is GPS but again it requires a high relative accuracy and a low TCO at the same time.

  3. Davidled
    February 25, 2014

    It seems like one sensor module has so many features including GPS and Pressure sensor, if I get correctly. I wonder if there is a correlation between GPS and Pressure sensor. So many feature would degrade sensor quality.

  4. samicksha
    February 26, 2014

    This is beneficial for all applications where the pressure sensor is used to support the GPS system in order to obtain more precise and faster position determination. They claim that sensor noise has been be reduced by a factor of 2.3.

  5. eafpres
    February 27, 2014

    @DaeJ–the key line of thought here is that the user doesn't care directly about temperature, humidity, etc.  But for indoor navigation, which is a great example, the GPS signal may be inadequate to provide direction.  I recently read about indoor navigation in smart phones using accelerometer data to detect how people walk, pressure data to help detect when they change floors, etc.  A company working on this is Trusted Positioning in Canada.

  6. eafpres
    February 27, 2014

    @Steve–I agree with you that integrating multiple sensors has the potential to dramatically change many applications.  I think your example of indoor navigation is an especially good one.  I wonder if you have any rules of thumb for the improvement in signal to noise per sensor/axis added?

  7. geek
    February 28, 2014

    “Interestingly, judging by several discussions at CES with developers and recent customer inquiries, wearable technology and related applications are also likely to accelerate the uptake and adoption of environmental sensors into the next generation of wearable technology platforms.”

    @Steve: I agree with this projection. Wearable technology will increase the need for environmental sensors to enhance the user experience from a mere visual stimulation to a fully-aware immersion. I see a lot of development taking place in this area in the next few years.

  8. geek
    February 28, 2014

    “I wonder if there is a correlation between GPS and Pressure sensor. So many feature would degrade sensor quality.”

    @DaeJ: I don't think the quality will necessarily be degraded if you have a good processor in the center to integrate the data generated by the sensors. In the absence of that, there's a chance that the data will get lost and the quality and response time may be affected.

  9. Davidled
    February 28, 2014

    When reviewing Video, man is walking while seeing the smartphone to track location. Then, in most time, his face is downed to see phone. Well, he might hit other person while he is walking. Service cost is expensive. Also, I image that battery drain is fast.

  10. eafpres
    February 28, 2014

    @DaeJ–“that battery drain is fast”.

    I'm sure you are correct.  On my iPhone, I use WAZE which is a great, free, turn by turn navigation app.  Problem is that in 45 minutes of driving it will use up 35% of my battery.  If I don't have a car charger I can be in trouble.  I wonder what the power consumption of pressure, temperature, humidity, accelerometer is compared to GPS?

  11. eafpres
    February 28, 2014

    @DaeJ–“he might hit other person while he is walking”.  I saw in the past an application that showed the forward view on the phone screen while you were holding it in front of you and walking.  This way you could see where you were going.  It effectively acted like the phone was transparent.  Of course, using the camera full time is another big power consumption!

  12. eafpres
    March 1, 2014

    I happened to come across this from Google which talks about a new platform merging high sample rate sensors with a 3D real-time model.

    Project Tango

  13. RedDerek
    March 4, 2014

    @eafpres – I agree, power consumption is getting to be a big deal. My phone, without a charger and running the GPS and sensors can not last very long – a few hours. Maybe it is my phone, but that, to me, is not worth operating for very long.

  14. Sachin
    March 31, 2014

    I also came across this new platform from Google and after reading this piece, the future of Google Glass looks so much brighter. In fact, with the integration of environmental sensors into the 3-D modeling application, you could, for instance, picture exactly how the environment in which you are is going to look in the next few hours or so once the weather changes. The sensors give you your own personal weather station and the 3-D model creates a lifelike image of the environment after factoring in the weather predictions.

  15. SunitaT
    March 31, 2014

    It is clear that in most developed countries you will find many people using environmental sensors,

    It is the most rapid growing market and i am sure soon everybody would like to acquire these devices. The market of these environmental sensors has been facilitated by the increasing demands by customer due to fashion trends.

  16. SunitaT
    March 31, 2014

    The combination of environmental sensors and wearable technology has limitless potential. In fact the applications of this combination are only limited by your own imagination. I can think of several right off the top of my head as I write this. For instance, instead of the heart monitor simply telling you your current heart rate, it could factor in the activity you are doing and the prevailing environmental conditions in order to give you an estimate of what your heart rate would be in, say, 1 hour from now if these factors remain constant or shift as predicted by inbuilt applications relying on the sensors.

  17. yalanand
    April 30, 2014

    Integration of sensors is important in that it may allow for accurate information, which might not have been possible to perceive with a single sensor. The best example is the one that has been highlighted of the pressure sensors and the GPS systems. There is increased accuracy as the two sensors will work to complement one another in order to give precise and faster location determination. I agree that with these new technologies greater changes can be made in the quest to advance to wearable technologies.

  18. yalanand
    April 30, 2014

    I completely agree that there are numerous ways in which wearable technologies can be integrated with environment sensors to improve the efficiency of certain human functions. The efficiency of environment sensors such as the heat monitor has led to an increase demand for these products in the market. The extent to which the environment sensors can be modified to meet the needs of the market are limitless. The heart monitor can effectively be integrated with the weather conditions to determine the heart rate in say one hour with some amount of precision.

  19. yalanand
    April 30, 2014

    @Red Derek, yes! The GPS track location technology in smart phones is useful in ensuring that one does not get lost within a complicated city or state. But this is not so useful if you will only be able to locate places in short distance maps, what about maps with log radii. If you are totally new to such locations, before you reach your destination, your smart phone will probably be giving you the “low battery” alert. What if you have not carried your charger or if there is no electricity in that area? You will definitely have a hard time locating your destination.

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