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Sensor Technology: Five Trends from CES 2016

We attend the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) every year to know what’s coming up next in underlying technologies.

The Internet of Things has been gaining momentum, and this year it converged with market forces in the automobile industry to expand the landscape of sensor technology we ‘ll be able to integrate into clients’ products in 2016.

Most of the basic technologies we saw last month at CES 2016 were familiar to us, but we were newly inspired by their creative uses and enormous reduction in costs.

1. Personal Radar, courtesy of the auto industry

Humans see in the optical light spectrum, and it’s natural to assume that our devices — if they could see — would use the optical spectrum, too. But processing visible light takes a lot of signal power to separate individual objects and ranges. A radar device, on the other hand, uses millimeter-wave radio and takes only milliwatts of power.

At CES, we saw personal radar sensors that could run off small batteries and see in 3D, using the Doppler effect to determine position and speed of objects. You could put one on your bicycle helmet to warn you if a car is coming up quietly from behind. Your house could use one to detect a figure moving toward it, recognize if it’s you or your dog or your car, and open the appropriate door.

sensor technology at CES 2016

Radar guns have been around for a long time, but they’ve been expensive, big and bulky, and generally reserved for specialized applications like law enforcement. There has been a burst of demand for sensors from the driver-less automobile industry — DRIVE PX 2, pictured above, is a new super-computing platform whose array of sensors allows a 360-degree view of the environment around the car. (There goes the rear view mirror.)

This push from the auto sector along with the growth of wireless products has brought down prices and improved device capabilities, making these technologies accessible to us and to our clients for a few dollars of cost — and less than a square inch to implement.

Other sensors, such as laser-based time-of-flight devices, have gone through a similar evolution, and we expect the auto sector to inspire even better sensors as self-driving cars evolve.

2. Radio Imaging

Another trend we saw was the expansion of ultra-wide band radio, WiFi and Bluetooth, into 3D radio imaging. It’s a way to locate people and objects inside a building that can give context to what is going on in an area of interest for relatively low cost. Radio imaging can tell not only where someone is, but what they’re doing — and it can see through walls.

 Radio imaging can tell not only where someone is, but what they’re doing — and it can see through walls.

Which room is someone in? Where exactly are they standing? Is a person facing toward a particular device or away? How fast are they moving? This contextual information could have immediate applications in security, home automation, and even industry — preventing machinery from turning on if a person is standing in harm’s way, for example. The best part is, it can use radio sources already installed for existing communications.

3. Audio-Beam Forming

Audio-beam forming also made an impression. It’s another example of a sensor that used to be pricey and specialized, but is now cheap and practical to implement. Originally developed for military applications, audio-beam forming uses an array of microphones to gather 3D orientation information about the source of a sound. The military found it useful for locating hidden snipers and other dangers; car designers are finding it similarly useful for audio commands, and speakerphone noise reduction.

sensor technology at CES 2016

MEMS microphones cost less than ordinary microphones, and don’t need analog circuitry. A commercial example already available is Amazon’s Echo (pictured above): it includes a plain language recognition system and has a circle to indicate who it thinks is talking. Currently it retails for $179. But the audio beam sensors we discussed with manufacturers at CES can be incorporated into devices for only a few dollars cost.

It’s another example of a sensor that used to be pricey and specialized, but is now cheap and practical to implement.

At Bresslergroup, we’re excited about the potential for inexpensive, accurate device controllers for televisions, refrigerators that can discuss dinner with you, and better natural-speech recognition in everything. These types of systems are poised to pop up everywhere, maybe becoming as common as touch screens are now.

4. Wearables for Fitness and Health

Sensors for medical applications were another hot area at CES. Conductive circuitry for sensors that measure heart rate and blood pressure can now be woven into garments or hidden in your earbuds for $5 or so. Blood gas sensing can also be woven in, or done using breath sensors. Blood sugar tracking for people living with diabetes was a popular theme for devices this year. Other sensors we saw, like the Levl, measured acetone in the breath to try to figure out how much fat versus carbohydrate your body is burning when you exercise.

sensor technology at CES 2016

Another sensor SCiO (pictured above) measures nutrients in food optically; the same technology could potentially measure compounds in blood or sweat. We’re interested in these developments because of the amount of work we do with medical devices at Bresslergroup.

5. Energy Harvesting Technology

Energy harvesting devices that don’t need external power were big in the start-up aisles at CES.  (One is Ampy, pictured below, a motion charger for  your smartphone.) These devices use existing sensing technology — think of a paper towel dispenser in a public bathroom that dispenses a towel when you wave your hand in front of it — but get their power in clever ways. The extra mechanical energy exerted on the dispenser roll when someone tugs the towel out could be used to charge its battery, for example.

sensor technology at CES 2016

You can have a magnetic device on your backpack or in your shoes that collects energy to charge your cell phone using the motion generated while hiking or running. There were also devices that gathered energy with photovoltaic cells tuned to indoor light wavelengths — to produce more energy at lower costs. As designers, we can apply these innovations to products that use the new, inexpensive, low power sensors, and charge them using energy that would otherwise be wasted —temperature, motion sensors, and so much more.

All these sensor developments have us thinking that the Internet of Things is poised to expand dramatically over the next year or two, as the range of practical applications increases — and we should design accordingly. What do you think? Did we miss any sensing innovations that will be game changers in 2016 and beyond?

See how we help clients integrate sensors into their products at our electrical engineering expertise page.