Very soon, motion technology will take over your life. Already, it seems you can’t go a second without people telling you about the wondrous, always-connected world that we’re going to be living in shortly. Internet of Things, wearables, VR, and motion technology… Yet, for all the hype, many don’t see what the big deal is. Ok, sensors in my underwear. Now what?
Well, let’s go on a short, sweet ride through contemporary technology and the brave new world ahead. Strap in, things might get bumpy.
The Motion Revolution
Motion recognition technology has been around since the 60s, and before the current boom, had managed to carve out a niche in the automotive sector for use in crash detection, airbag deployment, vehicle stabilisation and more.
Yet, on the stage of promising technologies, it seemed a bit-part player. Motion recognition seemed to be part of the perpetual future, with vague ideas on how movement could be used as communication, but little clarity on when or how it could be integrated into our lives. Plus, it just didn’t seem feasible on a commercial scale because sensors were expensive, unreliable and improving slowly.
Boom. Enter the Nintendo Wii and the Smartphone. A bucket of gasoline thrown onto the tinders of motion technology. These products changed the world as we know it and ushered in the modern motion technology revolution.
The reason? Sensors. Specifically, MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) sensors, tiny versions of full-sized sensors used to detect anything from speed, temperature, pressure, orientation and more.
The first smartphones included MEMS devices like gyroscopes to detect phone orientations and enable motion sensing in games like Temple Run, while the Wii controller included accelerometers to track the movement of your hand.
As a result, when smartphones and the Wii boomed, so did MEMS sensors. Importantly, increased demand meant more sales for MEMS manufacturers and more sensors being produced, meaning more people working on them, and more cash for R&D, meaning more innovation and a sharp declining trend in costs.
The graph below is a vivid illustration of this transformation, and it’s clear how important smartphones were in driving the industry forward.
With more than a billion smartphones sold every year, each replaced every 2-3 years due to the rapid pace of technology, short shelf-lives of phones and increasing population, the smartphone market looks set to sustain demand for MEMS sensors.
Meaning that as long as smartphones are in demand, sensors will be too. Meaning cost, efficiency and size improvements should continue for the foreseeable future.
When sensors had become small enough and cheap enough, all that was needed was someone to realise their potential. Enter the Fitbit in 2009, the first mass-market attempt at motion recognition. Suddenly, a new market was created.
So, what do we really mean when we talk about wearables? They could mean everything from the FitBit style of wristband/clip-on fitness trackers that have started penetrating the bubble of mainstream consciousness, to chestbands, headsets or Google Glass type visors. In general, any device you can wear that collects data.
Wearables aim to give us information that will help us live better. Today’s wearables are able to track everything from the number of calories you have burnt in a day, steps you have walked, hours you have slept, heart rate, to specialised movements like baseball swings and basketball throws.
However, disputes remain over the accuracy of the current generation of wearables. Studies have shown variations of between 5-25% between different trackers, showing activity trackers still have a way to go.
Internet of Things
Wearables are a subset of the Internet of Things. The IoT is comprised of a network of devices used in everyday life, from toasters to thermostats to pencils to clothes to anything you can imagine, having the ability to record data and connect to the Internet and to each other, enabling inter-device conversation.
If everything goes well, this will result in an unprecedented flow of data about our lives, habits, movements, patterns, to be analysed for our benefit. This data is meant to make our lives easier in almost every domain, whether it be conserving energy at home through intelligent power allocation, or technical self-diagnoses by your dishwasher.
Apart from individual uses, IoT devices have applications in other domains such as healthcare, manufacturing, construction, where they can be used to detect issues occurring in a system, such as patients who haven’t moved in a certain amount of time, or changes in the structural integrity of a drill.
The Path Ahead
Every day seems to bring us an exciting new application for sensor technology. Showing up in everything from the exciting VR industry, to sports wearables to healthcare, we’re about to enter an age of data explosion.