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

Making sense of sensors - now and in the future

"Not only will users get immediate answers to their problems, but governments too will be able to run their infrastructures more efficiently."

The smarter home

As sensors become smarter, so will all of the other gadgets and equipment in our homes. The sensor-packed smartphone of the future won't work in isolation, but as part of a larger network of devices, whether it's the thermostat at home or the Wi-Fi enabled lamppost out on the street, each with their own integrated miniature monitoring components.

STMicroelectronics is one of the companies leading the charge in sensor development. It's working on technology that combines readings from an accelerometer, magnetometer, pressure sensor and Wi-Fi scanner to accurately pinpoint your location indoors.

That means whether you're trying to find a bookshop in a shopping centre or a restaurant in a hotel, the tech can make life much easier when you can't get a GPS lock. The recently introduced Wi-Fi Aware standard also lets phones communicate directly - and identify where they are - with no internet or GPS access

Never get lost in a shopping centre again

Emiliano Miluzzo's firm Apio is working on a system to combine data from a phone's accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope and GPS to make calculations about your driving: "We invented complex algorithms where machine learning reasoning, signal processing, engineering and computer science come together to let the phone know when you are distracted or in a crash."

"Our mission is to turn your phone into something that can possibly coach you but also save your life. Your virtual companion on the road."

A smartphone that can sense where you are indoors, how you're driving and what's in your internet-enabled fridge opens up all kinds of possibilities - imagine your hotel room lights and heating turning on when you're on your way (something you can already do at home with the likes of Philips Hue and Nest).

Then there's your weekly trip to the gym — wearable technology such as the GymWatch can detect how well your workout is going, while most smartwatches have some sort of heart rate monitor built into the system to keep an eye on how healthy you are throughout the day.

And this tech is going to keep getting smarter, and it shouldn't take long before gym equipment can automatically adapt to your fitness levels (getting heavier or faster when needed) without any input from you.

Cardio app
The Cardiio app can detect your heart rate through your iPhone's camera

Let's not forget gaming either — the technology already exists to tell when you're looking away from the screen, and once mobile cameras are smart enough to detect your mood, then the gameplay could adapt accordingly to make life easier or slow you down.

As 3D and stereo cameras become the norm, so gesture and facial recognition will improve.

Brave new worlds

A final look ahead from Emiliano Miluzzo: "What's exciting is that smartphones and tablets will turn into our personal assistants, ready to sense our surroundings and take actions on our behalf.

"To achieve this, new and advanced sensing capabilities will be always needed — a process that hardware miniaturisation will only accelerate. And it's fascinating to see how researchers and developers exercise their creativity to come up with unthinkable apps and ideas with the sensors available today.

"We measure this by the very large community participation in what it is known as smartphone sensing research."

"Moving forward, I think that somewhat still under-explored sensors are the radio interfaces," he adds. "Wi-fi and Bluetooth provide great means to realize local interaction, discovery, quick localized communications."

Phone sensors offer portability backed up with computing power and the ability to report back from the remotest of locations. Whether it's monitoring your blood sugar levels or warning about an impending avalanche, nothing is beyond the realms of possibility when it comes to future innovations.

Smartphones have already revolutionised many aspects of our lives, and they're only just getting started.