Ambient conditions sensing widens wearables‘ potential

Ambient conditions sensing widens wearables‘ potential

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Wearables are attracting increasing attention in the market, miniature computers that are worn as clothes or accessories, and what make them smart are the integrated sensors. With environmental sensing, these devices can also be made aware of their environment.
By eeNews Europe


The latest sensors are able to measure relative humidity and temperature (RH/T), light and pressure to enable devices and their users to understand their ambient condition and what is going on around them.


Personalized ambient conditions

The integration of temperature and humidity sensors into wearable devices allows measurement not only of the ambient conditions but of the user’s physiological information, such as skin temperature or sweating rate. This can give a better understanding and interpretation of achieved performance (e.g. disturbed sleep in hot weather, slower running in high humidity) and is the basis for a variety of potential new applications. This information can also be used in a connected home (smart home) to automatically control the indoor climate.

If skin temperature and sweat rate is shared with a climate system, the room ambience can be optimized to personal preferences without the need of human intervention. This is particularly relevant if a user is sleeping and is not aware of unhealthy or uncomfortable conditions. In addition to increased comfort, energy is consumed only when needed, leading to cost savings.

Fig. 1: Environmental temperature and humidity sensing across multiple wearables.

Tracking ambient conditions is also useful for other applications. Depending on the temperature and dryness of the environment, a wearable device could provide useful skincare tips. Our skin is highly sensitive and an understanding about exposure could be used in cosmetics to recommend the right product for the right skin and exposure.

But it’s not only the beauty industry that can enhance its products to satisfy customers – the healthcare market would also benefit. People with respiratory diseases need a climate adjusted to their condition.

A bad indoor climate can increase the risk of illness – asthma, mites and mold infestation are just a few of RH/T-dependent health risk factors. By tracking the ambient condition with a wearable device, distinct patterns will emerge and abnormal or risky conditions will trigger the adjustment of heating, ventilation, air-conditioning or humidifiers.

In the near future, spectacles, watches, articles of clothing and other items will have the ability to sense light, temperature and humidity, making it possible to integrate the measurement of our environment into every facet of our lives.

This will help us to get a better understanding of our environment and the ambient condition in the space we live in. As a result, processes in daily lives could be optimized, energy consumptions minimized, money saved and comfort and health could be improved.


Integration and sensor fusion

Integrating ambient sensors into wearable devices like Smartwatches is a non-trivial undertaking. This is especially true for temperature and humidity. Temperature sensors built in a wearable or mobile device face three major challenges.

First, electronic components in a tightly packed device generate heat and influence the sensor‘s reading. This effect gets even worse as the heat dissipation of the different components is highly load dependent and therefore is changing all the time. Second, the sensor readings are influenced by the heat of the skin.

Third, the device has a certain thermal mass which results in a slow thermal response. Similar to the fact that a hot cup of coffee needs about 30 minutes to cool down to room temperature a smart watch or phone needs about 30 minutes to adopt to temperature changes.

There are multiple measures to mitigate or even eliminate this obstacle. One of the most crucial parts is the placement of the sensors. It is important that they are very well decoupled from the main device-internal heat sources and the human skin. The placement of the sensor is highly device specific and has to be well considered for every product independently.

An ideal sensor placement, however, is not enough as a complete decoupling is most likely not feasible. To compensate for the remaining influences, the influence factors have to be monitored and their impact on the temperature reading has to be determined. For example to compensate for the body heat, an additional sensor can be placed closely to the skin. A heat-propagation model can then be applied to estimate how big the temperature gain of the body heat on the sensor is. This information allows for compensation.  

This environmental sensor fusion software approach (we call it the Sensirion Engine) is already actively used in several smart phones enabling accurate ambient temperature and humidity sensing. The Sensirion Engine allows to speed up the response of the temperature and humidity signal to ambient changes far beyond the physical limits. Which is necessary as no user wants to wait up to 30 minutes to get accurate readings.

Fig. 2: The SHTW1 chip-scale temperature and humidity sensor.

Sensirion is the first company to use wafer-level chip-scale packaging technology in humidity and temperature sensors. The package of our SHTW1 sensor is no larger than the CMOSens chip itself and is only 1.3×0.7×0.5mm, less than 1mm2. The device operates from a 1.8V supply and draws only 2 µW at 1 measurement per second, an optimal base for use in small, wearable devices.


About the author

Dominic Boeni is Director of Marketing & Sales for Mobile and Consumer Business at Sensirion – – He can be reached at

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