Sensors, sensors everywhere

Let’s make sure they get used for good, shall we?

Not long ago the camera array that was required for Streetview images cost roughly $90,000 installed. The LIDAR system that was being used by Google Maps cost additional $75,000. Today you can buy a complete LIDAR array, enabling 360º machine vision for $349. The next car you buy may be equipped with similar capabilities, even if it isn’t being used. And that’s only the beginning.

Chances are, if you’re in the US at least, you have a dozen or so sensors on you right now. Your smartphone packs more data collecting potential than any other device previous, and with Google’s Project Tango showing that portable machine vision is possible it’s only a matter of time before machine vision becomes a part of the standard sensor stack.

For many, this leads to worries about the proliferation of micro-targeted advertising and the possible use of that data by insurance companies and other services providers to limit or overcharge individuals based off of that data. People tend to go straight to a Blade Runner/Minority Report future with intrusive, hyper-personalized advertising and excessive police actions as the only result of increased data on the population.

But, the fact of the matter is, the sensors are here and they aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact, they’re only becoming more ubiquitous. And as a result the data will be there.

If we accept that there’s only going to be more and more data collected about us and our immediate surroundings in the future we need to make the choice to ask ourselves the hard questions. So what are we doing with all of this data? How are we making people’s lives better? How can we be sure that it makes all lives better, not just those with the means to buy the next iPhone or Tesla.

At Tanooki Labs two of our hardware partners are doing just that and helping us rethink what can be done with data around us.

Heat Seek’s new sensor allows for better data collection and increased connectivity.

Heat Seek is using sensors to create a database of the actual temperature inside NYC housing units. This data is then merged with local 311 calls to give a clearer picture of the heating crisis that occurs every winter in NYC.

Heat Seek is utilizing new sensors that are able to connect to WiFi, 2G cellular internet or even LoRaWAN. They will have a more precise thermometer as well as a humidity sensor to create a heat index. From the Heat Seek blog:

This means we can maximize connectivity options and do installs in the coldest apartments in a building, regardless of the building’s layout.
These new sensors will be more reliable, significantly easier to install, quicker to manufacture, and ultimately provide our clients with better data.

With community partners such as The Urban Justice Center, Heat Seek is helping ensure that no New Yorker has to withstand a frigid winter in their own apartment.

The team at WearWorks is developing the WAYBAND, a haptic device designed as a tool to assist the blind and visually impaired to navigate via vibration. By moving navigational prompts from the ears (think the voice prompts in Google Maps) to a tactile sensation WAYBAND users are able to use the previously blocked auditory data to get a fuller picture of their surroundings. The ambient noise that would be lost is an incredibly valuable navigational signal, not to mention regaining the ability to hold a conversation while navigating an unfamiliar route.

The WAYBAND uses the sensors in an iPhone (GPS, Magnetometer, WiFi and Compass) to power the mapping application as well as the haptic sensors to generate haptic sensations that give the users cues to navigate the path. Thanks to the proliferation of sensors and the data that they generate we were able to work with the WearWorks team to have a wearable “works-like” prototype up and running fewer than six weeks.

These are just two of the ways that entrepreneurs are using sensors to empower users. With the rapidly decreasing cost of sensors, and their increasing proliferation - and data they create- the opportunities are nearly endless. As sensor and connectivity costs decrease manufacturers are increasingly including them in products that one would have never thought of as necessary before. These data points will eventually be used by everyone from advertisers to insurers and it’s easy to become angry at the possibility of exploitation. But it’s important that we can also use that data for good. We can use it to improve people’s lives and possibly even save them.

The data we produce will be collected and aggregated — it’s up to us to find good ways to use it.