Sunday, October 23, 2011

Barometers in smartphones? Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus has one. Is the pressure now on the other vendors?

Is this sensible? A barometer in a smartphone?

It seems like each year, about one new sensor makes it mainstream in smartphones.
There were antennas of all sorts, cameras, proximity sensors, light sensors, GPS chips, accelerometers, digital compasses, and now NFC. But wait, there’s more…

When Samsung and Google unveiled the Galaxy Nexus, they mentioned during the stage presentation that the phone had a barometer. Not very much detail was given and for the most part, the development flew under the radar. This left many guessing: what use is a barometer in a smartphone?

There have been some interesting explanations on several blogs. Mobile Magazine, for example, suggested that barometers could be used for crowd sourcing atmospheric pressure from thousands – even millions – of terminals for more accurate and hyper-local weather prediction.

The explanation given on several blogs, and one that makes immediate sense, is barometers can improve GPS time to first fix. The reasoning is that barometers provide indirect information about altitude which in turn can be used by the device for faster and more accurate GPS locks. (It seems that the Motorola Xoom tablet has a barometer for this purpose, which I wasn’t aware of.)

But in the long run, developers will certainly find interesting and yet unimagined uses for barometers. Perhaps they can be used to track the relationship to heart rates and body temperature and calorie burn to barometric pressure. Perhaps there will some clever barometer-based games. Put the APIs out there and the developers build.

Will other vendors be left out in the cold? I’m not sure what the effect is on BoM, but if you’re in the smartphone business, there’s a little more pressure today to add one new sensor to your devices.

The atmosphere is ripe for more innovation.

Will barometers become a norm in smartphones?
The pressure could be on vendors and platform providers.

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