Environmental sensors will thrive in consumer, wearable products

Environmental sensors will thrive in consumer, wearable products

Feature articles |
Steve Barraclough, senior director of product management at Bosch Sensortec, talks use cases for environmental sensors and how some day products will get a sensor network equivalent of human skin.
By eeNews Europe


Having spent the better part of four days on my feet in the Bosch-Sensortec booth at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I can say that the subsequent press coverage is absolutely correct in declaring that wearable technology did indeed dominate the proceedings. Surprising? Not really.

Despite the hype, the wearables sector has been stagnant for some time now, and leaving out trailblazers such as Jawbone and Fitbit, it is fair to say that innovation in this space has suffered at the expense of smartphone development and mobile software applications.

But all that is about to change. The intense focus on improving the smartphone user experience has driven the development of low-cost, ultra small, sophisticated motion and environmental sensors, which are now powering the next generation of wearable technology. The new platforms have not just reinvented the concept of the watch, but turned wrists, arms, heads, and ankles into anchor points for new navigation, fitness, health, and gaming products.

As a leading supplier of 3/6/9 axis motion sensors to the consumer electronics sector, we see that orientation, motion tracking, and related data fusion software dominates smartphone applications, and not surprisingly, this functionality is now finding its way into the heart of the new wearable products.

Interestingly, judging by several discussions at CES with developers and recent customer inquiries, wearable technology and related applications are also likely to accelerate the uptake and adoption of environmental sensors into the next generation of wearable technology platforms.

The reasoning is not immediately obvious, and requires a different line of thinking. The classic view of the environmental sensor group, primarily pressure, humidity, and temperature, immediately points to the personal weather station application as an obvious candidate for wearable platforms, so nothing new here. But taking a closer look, environmental sensor and motion data can be, and is being, combined in ways that will significantly increase the sophistication of the data fusion algorithms embedded in wearable platforms, enhancing navigation, augmented reality, gesturing, and body function monitoring.

To illustrate this alternative line of thinking, consider indoor navigation. For this application, clearly 9 axis motion and orientation sensing is a given, but adding a pressure sensor gives a 10th dimension for tracking vertical movement. In combination, an accelerometer can compensate for pressure sensor offsets, and vice versa.

From a sensor processing perspective, while accurate relative pressure measurement requires filtering of pressure spikes such as those created by opening a door, window, or sudden movement, such spikes can also, for example, indicate significant motion when a device has been picked up or moved. For another example, while the classic use case for a humidity sensor is the weather station, humidity sensing can be used in presence detection to indicate human proximity.

Essentially, environmental sensor technology enables a new line of thinking for established use cases. In addition to cost and size, from a sensor perspective, what is needed is a step up in performance in terms of accuracy and response times. As one developer put it, "Think of human skin, and our ability to quickly sense proximity or movement through an environment via the sensations of heat, air, and moisture. Then you’ll see the potential."

While realizing that full potential may be some way off, the BMP280 pressure sensor and BME280 humidity and pressure combo sensor from the Bosch Sensortec portfolio sensor offer that step up in size and performance required to enable the next generation of innovative applications. And judging by the feedback from the development community, the future is bright for these two devices in smartphone and wearable technology platforms.

Steve Barraclough is a 30-year veteran of the semiconductor industry, operating first as an Integrated Circuit design engineer and manager in the fields of high performance DSP, Microprocessor and ASIC design, and latterly specialising in Product Marketing and Business Development for Wireless Communications and Mobile Multimedia consumer products. Steve is currently the Senior Director of Product Management at Bosch Sensortec GmbH, responsible for Sensor product definition and product management

This article first appeared on EE Times’ Planet Analog website.

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