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The importance of sensors in the near future

At this year's CES, I was fascinated by the plethora of new wearable health devices that can track information like the number of steps taken, quantity and quality of sleep, calories burned, pulse rate, and even mood. Last year at CES, 24 booths were dedicated to these sorts of gadgets, but this year there were 75 booths.

And what do most of these products have in common? They have sensors in them that monitor various activities and send that related data to a smartphone, tablet, or PC.

When I think about sensors, a scene from The Graduate springs to mind in which Mr McGuire offers advice to Ben, the graduate, at his graduation party.

"I just want to say one word to you. Just one word," Mr McGuire says. "Are you listening? Plastics."

He goes on to inform Ben that there is a great future in plastics and it is worth investing in. Well these days, that word is "sensors."

I'm a great example because for the last six months, I have been wearing several of these health devices. Following my triple bypass operation last June, my son bought me a Nike+ FuelBand to help monitor my recovery progress. He didn't know that my wife also bought me a Fitbit One. Then, my doctor suggested I get a watch that tracks my pulse in real time, data that helps to readjust my heart and blood pressure medication dosages given my weight loss.

When on the treadmill, I also use Bodymedia's Fit Core armband to track my physical activity level. One key to my recovery is walking at least 10,000 steps each day. Two of the three devices that I regularly wear count my steps and alert me if I don't get to that number each day. I also need to get a lot more sleep as part of the healing process, so I bought the new Jawbone UP wristband that tracks my sleep patterns.

Now I admit I look odd wearing all four monitoring devices, but at least for the time being, given my heightened awareness of various health factors, I am committed to using all of them. The good news is that they are somewhat stylish and unobtrusive and as my health improves, I will ideally only need one of these monitoring devices to keep me motivated.

And it seems that I'm not the only one buying these devices. My company's early research suggests mobile medical monitoring will be a very big market, and mobile devices will play a key role in managing the data we need to track our health.

Sensors connected to our mobile devices are becoming more important in other areas of our lives as well. Take the Nest Learning Thermostat, created by former Apple exec Tony Fadell. This thermostat has multiple sensors that can regulate temperature, control the heater or air conditioning, and remotely monitor settings via a mobile app.

There are also a lot of new home security systems coming in over in the States from big name providers like ADT and FrontPoint Security that use wireless sensors on doors and windows for surveillance, which you can arm and disarm using a mobile app. Even US cable companies are getting into this; Comcast now has a similar sensor-based system in which cameras let users peer into their home and check things when they're out. And it doesn't stop there – my car has at least 50 assorted sensors to monitor everything from temperature to tire pressure.

Last time I was in Tokyo, someone showed me a very intriguing tea kettle with a sensor that connects to the home's Wi-Fi system. For the life of me, I could not guess why someone would put a sensor on a kettle. It turns out that in Japan, tea is taken by the elderly at least three times a day, so when the kettle is heated and lifted off the stove, it sends a signal to a relative's smartphone to indicate that the elder is active. I realise this is a culturally-driven application, but it shows the potential for sensors on all types of devices.

Smart everything

If you want to get a better handle on how sensors are increasingly impacting the world around you and its mobile links, just look for anything that has the word "smart" in front of it. For example, "smart parking" refers to the monitoring of parking spaces available. "Smart lighting" mostly refers to sensor-based controls for home lighting that can be controlled from smartphones. There are even "smart toilets," which I won't even try to explain but I can say from personal experience that they are very interesting. If you trigger the wrong sensor, you could get a surprise.

About 30 to 40 per cent of all smartphones have sensors in them, too – most commonly accelerometers, compasses, gyroscopes, optical sensors, and touch sensors. By 2015, my company predicts that well over 80 per cent of all smartphones will have sensors, and that number might be conservative.

Even though many smartphones have various sensors that developers can tap into, we estimate that less than five per cent of apps created actually take advantage of them. The main reason is that it is difficult for developers to navigate the dozens of sensor vendors, sensor product lines, and application tools.

Also, many OEMs make their own decisions about how a sensor should respond to variables that can influence the design of the app itself. This is especially true within the Android community because the variety of sensors OEMs use in their handsets has little standardisation and common tools. On the other hand, Apple documents its sensors well and all of its devices use the same sensors, making it a bit easier for developers to write apps for iOS.

There is a real need for standardisation to allow creativity in sensors to go forward. It is vital that developers create common APIs that will support basic sensor functions and also allow OEMs to introduce proprietary enhancements that can add value. We must also standardise the way the sensors interact with each other and can complement themselves in order to drive more innovation in mobile devices.

So I have one word for you – just one word: Sensors. In the near future, sensors will become ubiquitous. They will play an increasingly important role in our hospitals, homes, cars, work, recreation, and education, and I believe they are a disruptive technology that will drive the next generation of mobile innovation.