Despite the empirical shift to all things digital, one can’t help but still marvel with amazement when peering into the inner workings of a finely crafted Swiss watch. It’s almost as if the smallest of parts are somehow alive, with the rhythmic sound of their movement as steady as a heartbeat.
The evolution of watchmaking to leverage the concepts of miniaturization is still impressive in its ingenuity and convenience. After all, who could possibly carry around a clock tower to tell time?
The proliferation of wireless electronic sensors in our everyday lives is a similar, and still new, concept. Sensors that connect, transmit and receive data over the internet belong to the family of devices called the “Internet of Things,” or IoT.
Early prototypes of IoT sensors could be compared to a clock tower in relation to a watch. For example, early versions of environmental gas sensors were nearly the size of a shoe box with large antennas sticking out, resembling a large spider attached to a wall. Many units required an electrician’s services to wire in power.
The installation wasn’t hidden, compact or simple, but they served their purpose by highlighting the value of data and the power of an algorithm. They would reliably alert for a refrigerator door left open, or for a pipe with a water leak.
Now, room environment sensors are smaller than a deck of playing cards. Plugs and cords have evolved into batteries capable of delivering years of service, and their installation does not require the skills of a 16th-century watchmaker.
In the future sensors will become smaller and more abundant. Aesthetics and efficient use of space drive further miniaturization, which enables monitoring the conditions of small components or equipment in tight spaces and locating multiple sensors in the same spot.
Sensors are being manufactured into equipment, woven into the fabrics we wear, embedded into materials that make up our infrastructure, and even inserted under human skin or applied like a tattoo. Over time, they will surround us in our places of work, travel, and leisure.
These examples could impact this trend even more:
- Low power sensors that harvest energy from the surrounding environment. Researchers at Michigan State University developed a paper-thin flexible material capable of converting mechanical energy to electrical energy and vice versa. Innovation that eliminates the dependency on batteries will contribute to an even smaller footprint.
- The new 5G telecommunications standard that will dramatically boost bandwidth, capacity, and reliability. This future network will be capable of sustaining a sensor density that is orders of magnitude greater than the current standard.
The fading presence of the physical to mark the monitored environment has created a new challenge that necessitates a recasting of the visual imprint once provided by larger sensors. Enter the smartphone application or digital assistant, which fill that void by becoming the perfect host for the stream of sensor activity. The data and algorithms handled by these technologies create an experience that is almost as fascinating as peering into the machinations of a Swiss watch.
Consider the temperature sensor that can detect freezing conditions in your home. It can trigger a push notification to your smartphone and conform preferences like geographic location or time of day. Or, perhaps you’d rather be notified by your digital assistant? It could inform you of the event using a soft, spoken reminder, or if you prefer it could flash your lights and play your favorite dance song!
With such exciting options and capabilities available, few people will miss being able to marvel at the inner workings of a big 20th-century sensor.
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