We have a lot to thank the modern smartphone for. Most obviously the ability to communicate in myriad different ways, record our lives with photos and videos and keep us entertained with games, movies and music. All wherever we happen to be.
There are also some hidden, but huge, benefits that perhaps aren't all affecting our lives right now, but are helping to shape the future.
Even a budget smartphone of today contains some serious technology. Portable computing horsepower that will run for hours and hours off a tiny battery. Miniaturised radios like WIFI and Bluetooth for wireless communications between devices and over the internet. Lastly, and by no means least, tiny sensors that help the smartphone interpret the world around it. I'm thinking of cameras, light sensors, gyros and accelerometers tell the phone where it is, what's around it and which way up it is.
There are two things that are particularly interesting about all this. One, economies of scale make these parts very cheap to buy and two, you don't just have to use them in phones.
Here are five gadgets doing the rounds that I think make very clever use of off-the-shelf parts.
1. Robot(s) with 'X-Ray' Vision Using only WIFI
Okay, the reason I've put an 's' in brackets up there is because this simple (but very cleverly executed) technique needs two robots to achieve the magic. The idea is that the robots, both equipped with WIFI radios take up position either side of an object, like a building.
The first robot broadcasts WIFI signals through the building toward the second robot, which is able to receive them. As the radio waves pass through the building, they are slowed down by the objects inside and the time it takes them to arrive at that second bot can be used to calculate what exactly is in between. Intricate understanding of the properties of radio and some very clever software are of course needed, but the researchers at the University of California say that they can use this method to detect people and materials (wood, metal etc.) on the other side of walls, meaning applications such as search and rescue, surveillance, occupancy detection and more will be possible.
All this using a bit of know-how and a WIFI radio such as we all have in our pockets.
2. Eavesdrop Audio from Outside a Sound Proofed Room
Using only a Camera and a Plant
People reading the title might think to themselves that the camera could perform some sort of lip-read, but it wouldn't be so easy to reason the plant's part in all this.
In actual fact, there is no lip-reading at all. I'm talking about capturing and recording the audio going on in a sound-proofed room and being able to play it back! The technique, as described by the Researchers at MIT sounds incredibly simple, but behind the scenes there is some head-bending complexity neatly wrapped up in a clever software algorithm.
In the tests, the researchers point the camera (also outside the room, no microphone involved) through a window at the plant, which sits doing its thing inside the room with the people holding the conversation. Perceptibly, the plant isn't doing anything, but film the plant at a really high frame rate and it becomes possible to register the vibrations the sound is causing on the plant's surface. That data can then be reversed engineered back into sound and played back using the software MIT have created.
It doesn't have to be a plant either, other demos included a crisp packet! Just something with enough flexibility to react to the soundwaves going on around it.
I'm starting to think that combining the two technologies above could result in some sort of robot superhero!
3. MagicBulb - The Powercut Proof Lightbulb
Whilst the last two products use common off-the-shelf parts and gadgets, we can see that there is real complexity to be found in the software - but they say the best ideas are the simple ones, so I wanted to include an end to end simple product that could result in real positive impact on people's every day lives.
We've all experienced the odd powercut from time to time. Where I live in the South East of England, they're a rare thing, usually occurring in particularly bad storms and are generally little more than an inconvenience. However, imagine if you live somewhere like the Indian Continent where sweeping powercuts and an unreliable electricity service mean that the lights regularly go out and life regularly has to stop when darkness descends.
Once upon a time, you'd have to have been wealthy enough to have your own generator in order to keep the lights on, not something your average developing country local will have to hand. Recent advances in LED lighting, which require very little electricity to shine brightly, have seen prices starting to tumble and lead a Japanese entrepreneur to a very bright idea.
This is the magicbulb. It's an array of LEDs with a traditional light fitting attachment. Screw it in and it will behave just like your normal light bulb, right up until the moment when the powercut hits - when it will continue to shine away. Yes, the bright idea was to stick a battery in there. Battery technology is often thought of as a bottleneck, constantly struggling to keep up as we hammer away at our smartphones - but a small battery will keep one of these bulbs going long into the night. When the power comes back on, it will charge itself back up again. It even features an extendible handle, so you can use it as a portable torch if you need to venture outside or into darker areas. Simple, but clever and it really could change the lives of millions.
4. Charge Your Gadgets Just By Walking
I like this one, because it's a healthy and environmentally sustainable way to keep your smartphone, or indeed any USB powered gadget charged up. Neat for those of us away from the power-point for a few days, utterly essential for those who cannot rely on ever being near a working power source.
Developed by SolePower and recently successfully funded on Kickstarter, the idea is that energy is harvested from your own stride as you walk about and used to charge a small battery. That battery can later be used to charge up a phone, whilst you yourself charge up by having a bit of a sleep.
Whilst I imagine the gases released from some of our feet could power a small city, this energy is actually captured from the heel's impact on the sole of the shoe. Kinetic forces spin a small generator, which converts the energy into electricity to be stored in the battery. Just 5 miles walk is apparently enough to charge up an iPhone, which is supposed to be how much we need to move about every day.
Not only has a lot of work apparently gone into making sure that the owner's walk is not affected, but by developing only the sole, they're not trying to rip you off by forcing you to buy their shoes.
5. Working, Affordable Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality first made a big splash back in the early nineties, although the idea has been around a lot longer than that. At the time, the real push was in entertainment and computer games arcades suddenly promised more than watching your game on a screen, it promised through put you right into the game!
Unfortunately, the tech was expensive, and, sadly quite rubbish and like computer games arcades, it died a death. But thanks to some clever chaps at Oculus Rift and that cheap smartphone technology, decent VR could be with us in the home very soon. I was fortunate enough to have a go on the latest version of the development kit and excitedly wrote up my first impressions here.
Again, I can see the application of technologies like this stretching beyond games and into many forms of work and entertainment. The fact that the VR is so convincing and yet the parts you're wearing essentially all came out of a Samsung Note 3 smartphone beggars belief. You might look a bit silly wearing one of these, but I think you're going to want one and even better, you should be able to afford one.
Some of these ideas seem like the realisation of science fiction. Others are so simple, but so life changing when put to use. The relationship between all of them is that the hardware is already there and it's affordable. Both to the big corporate, the university academic (who won't always have a huge budget to work with) and the individual with a good idea. The future now belongs to those people with the drive and the ability to join these gadgets up with clever software - they're going to make millions, but hopefully also make life better for the rest of us too.
Check out my gadget recommendations on HaveYouSeen.com and buy from known retailers with cashback.