By Gary M. Weiss, Ph.D.

Gary M. Weiss, Ph.D. Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Gary M. Weiss, Ph.D.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Weiss is an associate professor of computer and information science and is the director of the Wireless Sensor Data Mining (WISDM) Lab, which is used to investigate how smartphone sensor data can be mined to extract useful knowledge. The WISDM lab’s current focus on sensors and mobile health (mHealth) applications is reflected in this top-5 list.

1. Your smartphone is a sophisticated sensing device. Most people have no idea about how many sensors are incorporated into every iPhone and Android phone. Test yourself against the following list: audio sensor (microphone), image sensor (camera), acceleration sensor (tri-axial accelerometer), direction sensor (magnetic compass), rotation sensor (gyroscope), proximity sensor, light sensor, touch sensor, and multiple location sensors (e.g., GPS). And if you think, “at least my phone does not have a sense of smell,” think again. “Smell” sensors are being developed and, unlike your sniffer, they will also be able to measure carbon monoxide levels.

2. Your smartphone is a health/medical device that will become much more capable in the next few years. The ActiTracker service being developed in Fordham’s WISDM Lab will monitor your smartphone’s accelerometer to track your physical activities (walking, jogging, sitting, etc.), and provide the results via a Web-based interface. The “Instant Heart Rate” app that is currently available uses your phone’s camera to detect changes in the color of your fingertip (which must cover the lens) to determine your heart rate. Researchers are currently working to dramatically boost the magnification of your phone’s camera lens so that your phone can act as a microscope to analyze blood and skin samples. Researchers at MIT’s Mobile Experience Lab are even developing a sensor to attach to your clothes that will allow your smartphone to track your UV radiation exposure. At least for those with serious medical issues, the smartphone of the future will likely become the central component of your “Body LAN” (Local Area Network), as a variety of sensors are embedded in your clothes and accessories.

3. Your smartphone will become an even better digital assistant in the near future. Right now your smartphone can serve as a voice recorder, remind you of scheduled appointments, and dial your phone (“Call Mary”). For those with an iPhone, your assistant even has a name, “Siri,” and Google will almost certainly release their own assistant before year’s end. But in the future these digital assistants will do much more: walk into your hotel room and they will wirelessly adjust the temperature; enter a meeting and they will provide the names of all of the participants (from their mobile digital assistants); and walk down the street and they will tell you if your friends are near (this feature is available now).

4. Your smartphone can replace your credit cards. Right now, if you have certain models of Android phones, you can use Google Wallet to pay for purchases by tapping your phone against the store’s PayPass reader. Virtually all major credit cards are currently supported. In the future every smartphone will have this capability, and all stores will likely have the required readers. This method will likely be more secure than current payment methods.

5. Your smartphone supports augmented reality. Augmented reality involves the superimposition of graphics, audio and other information over a real-world environment that is displayed in real time. While everyone is waiting for Google Glasses, which will display relevant information onto specially designed glasses as you navigate the world (e.g., look at a restaurant and up pops a menu and coupon), for now most of us will have to make do with our smartphones and tablet computers. You can, of course, use Google Goggles to take a picture of an object to retrieve information about it, as well as use Star Chart for the iPhone, or Google Sky Map for Android, to learn about the stars (hold up your phone to the night sky and they superimpose information for you to view). Google Glasses will, quite literally, change our perception of reality.

Technological advancements will force us to change the way we think about smartphones and other mobile devices. Their increasing ability to sense and interact with the environment will make them more intelligent and autonomous, while their increasing ability to serve as assistants and share vast amounts of knowledge will make them an even more integral part of our lives.