Environmental sensing in consumer electronics has only just begun

February 11, 2016 // By Thomas Block
Thomas Block, of Bosch Sensortec, sings the praises of the recently introduced BME680 component, a four-in-one combination sensor that is able to detect temperature, relative humidity and barometric pressure and also volatile organic compounds.

Hearing, sight and touch: these senses have already been implemented in smartphones and other smart devices; but what if we could have so much more right at our fingertips? Environmental sensing now enables your smartphone to have a nose! The new breakthrough in MEMS technology: environmental sensing. Now you can quantify your life and yourself.

As you’re reading this, MEMS based environmental sensors are being implemented in smartphones, tablets and even wearable devices. This is made possible by Bosch Sensortec building increasingly small sensors that are available in high volumes, with best-in-class performance, providing good value and will surely fit inside every smartphone, IoT or wearable device. Consumer electronics is the #1 market segment for MEMS sensors with an annual growth rate of over 15 percent in the coming years; therefore, consumer electronics are the new driver of the MEMS market. Environmental sensing can contribute considerably to the growing popularity of MEMS sensors, considering the vast benefits that environmental sensors have to offer. 

When it comes to environmental sensing in consumer electronics we proceed with caution into a rather poorly known domain. Potential applications for environmental sensing are growing rapidly. Additionally, the general public is just beginning to recognize that environmental sensing can provide a significant improvement to their quality of life. This poses questions for consumers such as: “what can actually be measured with environmental sensors?” or “why would this be of value to the customer?” 

Upon first look, it is evident that pressure is the most commonly used environmental sensor in high-end smartphones because of its wide range of applications that enhance people’s health and well-being, such as:

  1. Altitude tracking: enabling accurate sports profiling of workouts;
  2. Improved pedometer features: enhancement of calorie input and output;
  3. Indoor and outdoor navigation: GPS enhancement, floor level detection.

Furthermore, more precise weather forecasts are available to customers, as temperature, relative humidity and barometric pressure sensors give clearer indications about the weather conditions so that you are prepared for whatever weather comes your way. The barometric pressure sensor, in particular, can indicate weather and altitude changes; this information significantly improves weather forecasts for every location. Weather forecasts can be shared via the cloud, predictions can be enhanced, and everyone will benefit. Several application providers have already jumped on the chance to profit from enhanced weather forecasting. They are making use of a wide range of the latest environmental sensors to provide the highest resolution of forecasting, thus enabling their customers to have access to advanced weather data.

It wouldn’t be very progressive if environmental sensing in consumer electronics stopped here. So Bosch Sensortec has recently entered an entirely new arena. We have introduced a new environmental sensor: a four-in-one combination sensor that is not only able to detect temperature, relative humidity and barometric pressure but also volatile organic compounds (VOC) in order to live up to our standard of sensing the world. But what is VOC and why does it matter to the health of the consumer?

Historically, the presence of CO2 in the air is mostly due to human emissions (e.g. exhaled breath) and is considered to be a major pollutant of indoor air. However, the new innovation from Bosch Sensortec implements a VOC sensor, which greatly exceeds the benefits of traditional sensors of CO2, a gas which negatively impairs people's activity and concentration levels. VOC can detect a plethora of harmful concentrations in the air including: paints, formaldehyde, lacquers, paint strippers, strong cleaning solutions, glues, adhesives and alcohol. Implementing a VOC indicator in our new environmental sensors greatly impacts our customers as they can now feel safe and secure knowing that their smart devices can sense things that they simply can’t; thus allowing their smart devices to act as a nose.

Imagine summertime, when it tends to get quite stuffy and hot inside your home, a relaxed sleep under these humid conditions is nearly impossible. Currently, the only solution might be to open a window or turn on the air conditioning from time to time. But imagine if you were relieved of this manual duty! Considering that most adults spend around 90 percent of their life indoors, indoor air pollution can be up to eight times higher than outdoor air pollution; since recent building trends are prone to airtight rooms, indoor air quality should be of crucial concern. Poor air quality can lead to significant fatigue, headaches, eye irritation and loss of the ability to focus (also known as sick-building syndrome); and many people don’t even know it. However, environmental sensing can put an end to such discomfort, and Bosch Sensortec has provided just the sensor to do it: the BME680 (see Bosch adds gas sensor to environmental combo MEMS).

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