Environmental sensing in consumer electronics

Hearing, sight and touch: these senses have already been implemented in smartphones and other smart devices; but what if we could have so much more right at our fingertips? The new breakthrough in MEMS technology is environmental sensing . This now enables your smartphone to have a nose!

As you’re reading this, MEMS-based environmental sensors are being implemented in smartphones, tablets and even wearable devices. This is made possible as increasingly miniscule sensors are being built in high volumes, with best-in-class performance, providing good value and will surely fit inside every smartphone, IoT or wearable device. Consumer electronics is the #1 market segment for MEMS sensors with an annual growth rate of over 15% in the coming years; therefore, consumer electronics are the new driver of the MEMS market. Environmental sensing can contribute considerably to the growing popularity of MEMS sensors, considering the vast benefits that environmental sensors have to offer.

When it comes to environmental sensing in consumer electronics, Bosch proceeded with caution into a rather unknown domain. The general public is just beginning to recognize that environmental sensing can provide a significant improvement to their quality of life. This poses questions for consumers such as: “what can actually be measured with environmental sensors? ” or “why would this be of value to the customer?”

Upon first look, it is evident that pressure is the most commonly used environmental sensor in high-end smartphones because of its wide range of applications that enhance people’s health and well-being, such as:

  • Altitude tracking: enabling accurate sports profiling of workouts
  • Improved pedometer features: enhancement of calorie input and output
  • Indoor and outdoor navigation: GPS enhancement, floor level detection

Furthermore, more precise weather forecasts are available to customers as temperature, relative humidity and barometric pressure sensors give clearer indications about the weather conditions so that users are prepared for whatever weather comes their way. A barometric pressure sensor, in particular, can indicate weather and altitude changes; this information significantly improves weather forecasts for every location. Weather forecasts can be shared via the cloud, predictions can be enhanced, and everyone will benefit. Several application providers have already jumped on the chance to profit from enhanced weather forecasting. They are making use of a wide range of the latest environmental sensors to provide the highest resolution of forecasting, thus enabling their customers to have access to advanced weather data.

It wouldn’t be very progressive if environmental sensing in consumer electronics stopped here. So, as a MEMS sensor product manager, I am proud of our new environmental sensor that has just launched: a four-in-one combination sensor that is not only able to detect temperature, relative humidity, barometric pressure but also volatile organic compounds (VOC) in order to live up to our standard of sensing the world. But what is VOC and why does it matter to the health of the consumer?

Historically, the presence of CO2 in the air is mostly due to human emissions (e.g. exhaled breath) and is considered to be a major pollutant of indoor air. However, the new sensor implements a VOC sensor, which exceeds the benefits of traditional sensors of CO2, a gas which negatively impairs people’s activity and concentration levels. VOC can detect a plethora of harmful concentrations in the air including: paints, formaldehyde, lacquers, paint strippers, strong cleaning solutions, glues, adhesives and alcohol. Implementing a VOC indicator in our new environmental sensors greatly impacts its users as they can now feel safe and secure knowing that their smart devices can sense things that they simply can’t; thus allowing their smart devices to act as a nose .

Imagine summertime, when it tends to get quite stuffy and hot inside our homes, a relaxed sleep under these humid conditions is nearly impossible. Currently, the only solution might be to open a window or turn on the air conditioning from time to time. But imagine if you were relieved of this manual duty! Considering that most adults spend around 90% of their life indoors, indoor air pollution can be up to eight times higher than outdoor air pollution; since recent building trends are prone to airtight rooms, indoor air quality should be of crucial concern. Poor air quality can lead to significant fatigue, headaches, eye irritation and loss of the ability to focus (also known as sick-building syndrome); and many people don’t even know it. However, environmental sensing can put an end to such discomfort.

By using the Internet of Things to connect everything, environmental sensors can be used in a variety of smart home devices such as thermostats, all controlled from your smartphone. These devices work together to optimize your comfort level. With the click of a button you are able to regulate your heaters, air conditioners or windows remotely. Context awareness allows your devices to learn what environment fits your needs the best , and store that knowledge for later use. Monitoring indoor air quality ensures productivity and relief in schools, offices, and homes.

Environmental sensing allows us to experience the unlimited possibilities associated with the recent advances in MEMS technology; they are able to detect what our bodies cannot. When will environmental sensing begin for you?

This post was originally published in PLANET ANALOG.

 

About the author

Thomas Block

Thomas Block

Thomas Block has over 10 years of experience working in Product Management. He received his PhD in Solid State Chemistry from University of Mainz, Germany and Diploma in Chemistry from Duisburg University, Germany. After his PhD he worked as Postdoctoral Fellow at the IBM Research Center in San Jose, USA, for Hitachi. Before joining Bosch Sensortec as Senior Product Manager for environmental sensors (pressure, temperature, humidity, gas), he has held various Product and Project Management positions within Semiconductor and Photovoltaic industry.