Do you really know everything your phone is tracking on you?

Making sense of sensors - now and in the future

Emiliano Miluzzo has spent many years specialising in mobile sensing systems and big data analysis at companies such as AT&T and Apio. "The trend of adding more sensors to mobile devices will continue," he told us.

"It would be great to have air and water quality sensors, some forms of medical sensing, 3D/stereo cameras, even radar and sonar... the wishlist could certainly grow if we could have an understanding of how quickly sensor miniaturisation will proceed."

Sensory overload

How would you like a phone that could track your heart rate and emotional state, perhaps putting on some soothing music as soon as you start to get anxious?

This sort of technology is on the way, but it's not here yet: a couple of years ago semiconductor specialist Kaivan Karimi told the GigaOM Mobilize Conference that human feelings could be read by sensors costing just a few pounds.

"Your device will get to read your emotions," he said. "That means you can track people's emotions remotely... your device will know you significantly better than you do."

We're still waiting for a phone that knows when you're happy or sad - but Google Now and Siri are certainly getting there.

The microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) built into our phones are made of silicon, but scientists are now experimenting with MEMS running on an organic polymer more suitable for implanting in the human body.

Once the cost and time taken to manufacture these components comes down, we could be able to monitor health and activity from inside our own bodies. They could even be used to control bionic limbs.

Skin sensor
With implanted sensors, you can get readouts on your current health and fitness.

UV light sensors are also heading towards the mainstream - you might not know it but there's one inside the Galaxy Note 4. Find out how much sun cream you need, or how clean your hands really are, or how much you've had to drink, all courtesy of your phone.

Imagine the difference it would make to a check up at the doctor's if you had two months' worth of data on file rather than relying on your own memory and a quick five minute conversation. Phones can now track the basics of our activities (through apps such as Google Fit) and will become more comprehensive in time.

On a broader level, disease and health patterns can be tracked more accurately across countries and continents, something Apple's ResearchKit points towards.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have built a working prototype of a pollution sensor small enough to fit inside a mobile phone, giving governments and health officials the opportunity to measure smog and dangerous chemicals across cities (as well as giving you a warning when it's time to don a face mask).

Right now this kind of monitoring requires a separate device but it won't be long before the tech is inside our smartphones.

Credit William Griswold Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego
Don't forget your face mask...

Meanwhile, Antonio D'Alessandro and Giuseppe D'Anna, seismologists at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy, have run tests on iPhones to demonstrate how mobile phones could be used to detect earthquakes.

More recently, scientists from the US Geological Survey have been looking at using crowdsourced GPS data as some kind of early warning system for said ground-shakers.

The sensors within our handsets need to improve, but eventually they could act as early warning systems and get aid to those in need more quickly.

As Emiliano Miluzzo puts it: "Governments could rely on crowdsourced 24/7 pollution level measurements, people in developing countries could rapidly check the quality of their water, EEG headsets could let people control their devices simply through their thoughts, and radar and sonar sensing could let people be more aware of their surroundings."