Modern smartphones are packed full of sensors. The early Android devices contained proximity sensors for detecting when our faces are close to the screen on a call, and shutting it down, plus GPS for location sensors. Most also offered an orientation sensor, the accelerometer, to determine if the screen should be rotated or not. For location technologies, modern devices contain sensors magnetometers, barometers, combined GLONASS and GPS sensors, plus a different mode for 802.11 WiFi radios designed to put these components into listen only mode. Modern smartphones still contain the accelerometer but it is often boosted by a gyroscope, which measures angular rotation across three axes and is used to provide more accuracy for the accelerometer. Gyroscopes can be paired up with sophisticated software designed to detect how we are moving with our devices and can tell the difference between walking, running, cycling, being driven in a car or a bus, and similar. We have also seen manufacturers building custom chips designed to utilise these sensors without waking the main processor up – remember Motorola's X8 chipset as used in the first generation Motorola Moto X? This contained a sensor core designed for just this role. Increasingly, smartphones are containing environmental sensors such as temperature and relative humidity, ultraviolet light in conjunction with ambient light.
In the short term these sensors will be used for on-device support and activity but looking to the future, these sensors could very easily be pressed into service for wider scale projects. Smartphone temperature, ambient light and relative humidity results could be fed into a cloud-based energy management system working in conjunction with energy providers and home automation systems, such as smart thermostats. We are still very early in the development of such wide scale systems and there are more questions than answers; it seems that Sony Corporation has realized the opportunity and is preparing the business to invest into the sensor business. Sony, then, are following the classic advice: when in a gold rush, don't dig for gold, sell the picks.
For Sony Corporation and if you'll forgive the pun, this makes perfect sense. Sony's television and mobile operations are struggling as the business faces increasing competition from other manufacturers across the world. However, it produces some of the best smartphone camera sensors in the world and has expertise in other mobile sensors. This change of strategy may not be glamorous, and will require the business to raise money from investors (it has plans to raise up to $3.6 billion through new shares and convertible bonds in order to fund an increase in sensor development and production facilities), but should stand the business well. Manufacturers already cherry pick Sony's camera sensors, perhaps in the not too distant future we will see manufacturers picking Sony's environmental sensor suits too?