The Infinite Possibilities of a Sensor-Assisted Future

Until recently, I was never too gaga about motion-sensor technology. However, I can’t say that I’d had much experience with it. I used to have a little crystal ball that dolled out advice in similar fashion to a Magic 8 ball: “Signs point to yes,” or “Reply hazy, ask again later,” or perhaps, “Outlook not so good.” However, this crystal ball was especially exciting because it answered you after you waved your hand over it in majestic gypsy fashion. Being a squealing eight year old, ravenous for Ouija boards and Narnia and all things mystic and mysterious, I found this endlessly enthralling. I did not stop to think about how the crystal could detect me until, after months of tireless use, my older brother spoiled my fun by pointing out the little red sensor light that gleamed out of the base of the crystal.

That killed my love affair with the crystal ball, and I never really thought about sensor technology in the years that followed. In retrospect, sensors were obviously a part of my life. Burglar alarms, automatic soap dispensers, toilets without handles, and features on digital cameras are all based in motion-detection. But I never stopped to think about how these sensors worked or, more importantly, how they may be improved to affect other parts of my life.

Then came Wii. As a lifelong Nintendo devotee, I was appalled when I saw the beloved controller of generations past updated into a remote control for the new generation. How could true gaming skill be discerned by the use of two buttons? How was I going to be able to make Mario jump by wildly shaking my arm at the television?

I bit my tongue and swallowed my pride and took the Wii for a spin. I was instantly impressed by the precision of the controls. The first game I played, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, had me swinging a sword, shooting arrows, riding horses, and flying through trees. In contrast to my early fears, I actually felt a much stronger connection with my in-game character than I had in the bygone days of button mashing.

The public at large also responded positively, making the Wii the “must-have” item of several Christmases in a row. As one industry insider put it, “The Wii is destined to sell more units than The Bible.” Competitors also took note; both Microsoft and Sony have recently released motion-sensing peripherals, each with technology more advanced than that of the Wii. In the next year or two, we should see the next generation of gaming consoles unveiled and it is almost a certainty that each of the industry leaders will include motion-sensing technology in their system specs at launch. For an in-depth description of each platform’s technology, check out this article at PC World:

So, motion sensing has taken off in the gaming sector, but does that mean anything in terms of the world outside of the game-o-sphere? Yes it does. Let’s transition to a bigger picture.

The mobile phone industry has adopted motion sensor technology in a plethora of ways. One of the first significant executions of this was for, of all things, gaming. Several of the first iPhone games that came along were based on moving the phone itself to control the game, rather than to push buttons or make sounds. Then, as more first and third party contributors began to master the technology, the iPhone and other smartphones increasingly incorporated sensor technology. It can be as simple as shaking the phone to return to the home screen or as complicated as using eye-tracking to communicate through video calling.  Augmented reality applications have allowed people to combine motion-sensing technology with other technologies and actually add a virtual layer to their lives as they navigate through the “real world.” Check out this application that IBM created for visitors to Wimbledon: The only thing that is certain is that only the tip of the iceberg has been uncovered with regards to using this technology in the mobile realm.

Extending beyond this “peripheral” approach to motion detection, the question that comes to mind is how sensor technology could evolve to influence even more of our daily lives? Does it have a place outside of the gadgets that we so depend on? In this column for Mashable, HP Quantum Structures Research Laboratories’ own Distinguished Technologist (there’s a title for you) Pete Hartwell gives his prediction for the future of sensor technology, motion and otherwise. He shares that, even now, sensors that are one thousand times as powerful as those found in our Wiis can be produced. The question that Hartwell raises, and speculates on, is how we can use this technology to advance society, particularly in the areas of safety, security, and sustainability.

Hartwell speaks of a world where homes will be equipped with heat sensors in order to know what room the inhabitants are in. He notes the environmental benefits of this system, as the house could automatically shut of lights and appliances when a room emptied. How far behind is the hotel room that begins playing romantic music as soon as two bodies enter the room and their heat level increases? Or perhaps sound sensors will detect angry voices and turn on the sprinklers to drown a potential brawl?

It is not too hard to envision a future where all buildings are equipped with sensor technology. Perhaps sensor technology will become so huge that it will be like electricity in buildings. Will we someday get to a point when all of our buildings are aware? Imagine a future where no one must check into or out of work because the building can detect a person’s specific gait as she or he enters the front door. No bank teller would have to push a button because a simple hand gesture could alert the building to a potential security threat. The possibilities are truly endless.

If buildings can become aware, surely objects can as well. One step into the gym will tell you that certain equipment is already sensor enabled; the treadmill can check your heart rate and adjust your workout accordingly. Are we far from having the actual objects being our personal trainers? Will we have mirrors for aerobics classes that tell us how to do a particular exercise and then monitor our execution? A sensored mirror is a truly scary proposition. Imagine the mirror informing you that you’ve gained weight. Or point out pimples. Yikes.

What other objects will become aware? What objects need to become aware and which would suffer if they did? I am interested to see what people think about this. Perhaps movie seats sense us jumping in terror during a horror movie and change to cater to specific audience fears. Imagine sports clothing with built in sensors, becoming more porous as the athlete’s temperature increased.

We have already seen the functionality of sensor technology in the automobile sector. In terms of safety, in-car breathalyzers have long been in place for convicted drunk drivers. On a lighter note, many cars now respond to voice commands. Are we that far from heat-sensing anti-road rage car measures? The industry has shown creative use of sensors outside their vehicles as well. Check out Honda’s recent use of “smile tracking” at an event in Australia:

I could continue to rampantly speculate, but I suggest that we all ponder how the future of motion sensors, or sensor technology in general, could affect our lives. What interests me about this is whether sensor technology is going to be the catalyst that connects our “digital” and our “real” lives. Certainly ecommerce, Internet banking, social media, streaming content, and many others have bridged the gap significantly. But I still feel, at least personally, that my digital life (whether it be gaming, working, banking, shopping, researching, or whatever) and my non-digital life (reading, traveling, being outdoors, socializing, etc) are still separate in many ways.

Can motion-sensing technology bring it all together? Who knows? What we can be certain of is that sensor technology will only become more and more prevalent. The technology to expand it well beyond its entertainment-based foundations already exists. Questions arise as to where it will be most embraced, where it can help the most, and where it will be perceived as a threat? So many questions and so few answers. I’ll have to ask my crystal ball.