Intel aims for chemical sensors in phones

Mass data aggregation for the greater good

IN CASE YOU haven’t noticed over the past two or three years, Intel is very interested in sensor technology. During Research At Intel Day a few weeks ago, they were showing off technology to make air quality sensors mobile and ubiquitous.

The idea is pretty simple, many mobile devices already have GPS capabilities and net connectivity, so if you add a chemical sensor to it, you can get all sorts of positionally accurate, real time data for whatever you are interested in looking at. All you need to do is put a (hopefully) tiny sensor on your phone/MID/notebook and tie it in to the device’s firmware.

The sensor opened up

Cell phone sized prototype

The prototypes being shown off were about the size of a cell phone, but could be made much smaller if needed. Intel was touting them as a little widget that you strap to your backpack, and it takes CO/CO2 reading in real time. The SIM you see in the top left means that it transmits info back across cell networks, and should operate in realtime.

Oakland mapped

Oakland, don’t breath the air

Intel is working with a few NGOs to monitor air quality, the data you see here is taken from Oakland, CA, but it would work just as well in any other third world country. The information you get back is far more granular than a few static monitors could ever hope to be, and you can literally see where things are not healthy.

With thousands or millions of similar devices carried by people every day, you could gather data on a wealth of subjects. That information could be used for direct feedback to the user, or in aggregate. The direct feedback would be the reason one would carry such a device, basically to sound an alarm when things were unhealthy. The aggregate data could be used in all sorts of way, from governmental scale planning to anti-pollution lawsuits.

If every cell phone had a few of these sensors and were dumping a handful of bytes across the cell network every hour or two, the data would be immense and invaluable. If done right, the cost would be tiny, a mass produced sensor chip on your cell, and the power use would be almost zero as well. Currently available sensors can run for months or years on a button battery, so their power draw is negligible, and the data could ride over existing connections as they are made. If done sensibly, you would never even notice the amount of power consumed.

In the end, it is a good idea that will happen eventually, the only real hurdles are economic. In the cutthroat world of cell phones, not to mention cell phone service, trying to add a dollar to a phone is akin to shooting someone’s mother.

That said, a smart carrier could brand one of these as a ‘green’ phone to take advantage of the stupid and trendy. Charge an extra $10 for the ‘green’ phone, toss in a $1/month ‘fee’ to cover the $.00000314 worth of bandwidth used, and voila, instant profit for the phone makers and carriers.

Even better from their point of view, the carriers and friends can claim to be doing good while milking the hordes. If you go to any coffee shop there are vast fields of those types chewing their cud, staring like a goldfish at their Iphones, while drinking $5.99 coffees. They have money to burn, lots of it, while posing. Why not rope them into doing something really right for once instead of greenwashed cliches?S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate