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Making ‘sense’

I recently wrote about wearables, where I focused on form factor and information channels.  An article I recently read talked about a guy who builds spy gear, and near the end he talked about some things that started me thinking about an extension of that for all mobile, not just wearables.  The topic is  sensors.

In the article, he talks about how, in the future, glasses could detect whether you’ve been around bomb-making materials:

“You can literally see residue on someone if your glasses emit a dozen different wavelengths of microlasers that illuminate clothing in real time and give off a signature of what was absorbed or reflected.”

That’s pretty amazing, chemical spectrometry on the fly.  He goes on to talk about distance vision:

“Imagine you have a pair of glasses, and you can just look at a building 50 feet away, 100 feet away, and look right through the building and see someone moving around.”

Now, you might nor might not like what he’s doing with that, but imagine applying it elsewhere: identifying where people are for rescue, or identifying materials for quality control.

Heck, I’d find it interesting just to augment the camera with infrared and ultraviolet: imagine being able to use the camera on your phone or glasses to see what’s happening at night, e.g. wildlife (tracking coyotes or raccoons, and managing to avoid skunks!).  Night vision, and seeing things that fluoresce under UV would both be really cool additions.

I’d be interested too in having them able to work to enlarge as well, bring small things to light like a magnifying glass or microscope.

It made me think about all the senses we could augment. I was thinking about walking our dogs, and how their olfactory life is much richer than ours.  They are clearly sensing things beyond our olfactory capabilities, and it would be interesting to have some microscent detectors that could track faint traces to track animals (or know which owner is not adequately controlling a dog, ahem).  They could potentially serve as smoke or carbon monoxide detectors also.

Similarly, auditory enhancement: could we hear things fainter than our ears detect, or have them serve as a stethoscope?  Could we detect far off cries for help that our ears can’t? Of course, that could be misused, too, to eavesdrop on conversations.  Interesting ethical issues come in.

And we’ve already heard about the potential to measure one’s movement, blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and maybe even blood sugar, to track one’s health.  The fit bands are getting smarter and more capable.

There is the possibility for other things we personally can’t directly track: measuring ambient temperatures quantitatively, and air pressure are both already possible and in some devices.  The thermometer could be a health and weather guide, and a barometer/altimeter would be valuable for hiking in addition to weather.

The combination of reporting these could be valuable too.  Sensor nets, where the data from many micro sensors are aggregated have interesting possibilities. Either with known combinations, such as aggregating temperature and air pressure  help with weather, or machine learning  where for example we include sensitive motion detectors,  and might be able to learn to predict earthquakes like supposedly animals can.  Sounds too could be used to triangulate on cries for help, and material detectors could help locate sources of pollution.

We’ve done amazing things with technology, and sensors are both shrinking and getting more powerful. Imagine having sensors scattered about your body in various wearables and integrating that data in known ways, and agreeing for anonymous aggregation for data mining.  Yes, there are concerns, but benefits too.

We can put these together in interesting ways, notifications of things we should pay attention to, or just curiosity to observe things our natural senses can’t detect.  We can open up the world in powerful ways to support being more informed and more productive.  It’s up to us to harness it in worthwhile ways.

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