May 21, 2011
There's both some sound science and some sound silliness coming out of The New York Times today (via Mac Rumors), as Nick Bilton reports on a recent interview with STMicroelectronics GM (MEMS division) Benedetto Vigna. According to Vigna, a slew of new and increasingly sophisticated sensors are coming to mobile devices, which, in itself, is nothing unexpected or earth-shattering. It's the types of sensors the man mentions that cause us to take notice. Vigna's first reference, adding altimeter sensors to handsets, is not novel and would be a natural addition to GPS units already running in phones and tablets. Moisture or humidity and temperature sensors, too, are pretty ordinary. However, the list starts to get weird when Bilton gleans from Vigna that
[o]ther sensors built into your next-generation phone could include heart monitors to keep tabs on your health. There will also be sensors that can detect perspiration and could be used to monitor your excitement level and even mood. Additionally, phones will include more microphones, and temperature and humidity sensors to better determine their location and surroundings. This sensor-filled world will also affect video games. Sensors that can detect mood and excitement will usher in an era of video games that will factor in emotion during gameplay.Heart monitors have been around forever -- I myself own a couple Polar units -- and they work reasonably well... with a telemetry strap across your chest. There is really no acceptably accurate way to measure your heart rate or heart function without wearing transmission devices on the body. Gripping your phone could possibly provide a momentary heart rate sampling with the right contacts built into the sides of the handset, but this would be quite inexact at this stage of the game. Moving on, the perspiration sensor is a possibility, but a pretty useless one. We already know when we're sweating, and perspiration is not an effective way to measure "mood" (nor is anything else currently available to the medical or consumer community). Mood is absolutely subjective and immeasurable, and any data garnered by a device promising mood samplings is dubious at best. Using this innately flawed approach to affect a video game experience, as suggested above, would make for some very irritating and inconsistent gameplay. If you're playing a video game, your hands are going to sweat and you're going to get excited. Good developers have been "factor[ing] in emotion during gameplay" for many, many years. A "mood" sensor would be little more than a parlor amusement and is not likely to be included on any device that takes itself very seriously. As a more reasonable development, Vigna indicates that
some technology companies [are] working on ways to increase security and privacy on mobile phones with sensors. One way to do this is to build software that detects how you hold and interact with the device — almost like a motion fingerprint. After you use a new phone for a short period of time, it will start to learn your patterns and automatically lock or unlock the phone accordingly. This could be used for more secure banking too.While this is indeed more reasonable than a "mood" sensor, it sounds even more needlessly irritating. I hold my phone in a number of ways depending on where I am and what I'm doing, exactly like everyone else. I don't need to fumble around trying to grip or move my phone just so to unlock the thing. I think the industry's already-established facial recognition technology is a far better, faster, and more secure bet for the immediate future of mobile products. That said, I'm not tossing out this sort of research nor any direction it takes in the laboratory. That's how advancements are made, after all. It's just that, personally, some of these "sure-fire likelihoods" don't seem at all enticing or useful.