Personal sensors: the first genuine must-have accessory?
In major cities, we are surrounded by silent killers at all times.
On busy streets, in poorly-ventilated office buildings, and particularly in cars, the air we breathe is often filled with toxic fumes that cause health problems from lung disease to heart attacks.
A new innovation promises to arm citizens against such airborne menaces.
The Atmotube is a sleek, pocket-sized device with a battery of sensors embedded in its titanium shell. The design team claims it can detect 127 Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), as well as poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide.
The device -- which recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign -- takes readings every 10 seconds. The results feed to the user's smartphone, which are displayed as an air quality score and map displaying pollution levels across an area.
Vera Kozyr, CEO of parent company Not Another One, claims the technology is fast, sensitive, and accurate in all conditions.
"Atmotube senses even slight changes... and the response time is less than a second," says Kozyr. "In low levels of VOCs our air pollution sensor's accuracy is about 0.05 parts per million. We've also implemented mechanisms for compensation of temperature and humidity impact on the air quality measurements."
The entrepreneur believes the sensor could be useful for anyone but has specific targets in mind; parents who want to guarantee their children's safety, athletes that need to monitor everything entering their body, and people with health conditions that may be vulnerable to pollution.
The device will retail for $100, and be sold across the world, with varying emphases for different markets.
"In the U.S. and EU we will focus more on healthcare and partnerships with asthma, allergy and lung associations," says Kozyr. "In China, the consumers market will be our first priority as people are already aware about the air pollution problem, we also plan to partner with air purifiers and air filters producers there."
A new growth market
The Atmotube is one of several new personal sensors in a fast-moving and diverse field.
The Airbot from Carnegie Mellon's CREATE Lab will go on sale next year, together with the Waterbot for testing water quality. The Scio sensor from Consumer Physics -- already on the market -- provides a nutritional breakdown for food and drugs.
Avimanyu Basu, senior research analyst at Frost & Sullivan, believes the personal sensor market has great potential, estimating it could be worth $300 million by 2017.
"At this point commercialization is very low but there are quite a number of promising products and technologies," the analyst says. "Some are in the last phase of development and have gathered considerable funding."
Sensors for industry use are already lucrative. Industrial food safety and air quality sensor markets are both worth around $3 billion, according to Frost & Sullivan's internal research.
With the falling cost of components, Basu believes that industrial standards can be achieved with relatively low-cost, hand-held devices, while offering the performance advantage of instant readings.
Personal sensors could also have an impact beyond the user's health and safety. Mapping air quality could be of vital importance for public health policy, and dealing with war zones or the aftermath of disasters -- one company has already produced a cheap and lightweight sensor to analyze conditions in Fukushima's fallout zone.
As sensors hit the market in a range of stylized shapes and colors, they could be mistaken for any other flashy digital accessories -- but they might just save your life.