Sensors in Smartphones: Galaxy S4 Adds Pressure, Temperature, and Humidity Sensors

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SH 86_#1 BIG

Samsung recently launched their latest salvo in the smartphone wars, the Galaxy S4. Most tech writers couldn't decide whether they’d rather be bored by the phone or pan its ridiculous Broadway-style launch (see below, circa 17:20)—a little from column A, a little from column B, perhaps? We don’t write about every smartphone release, but this one caught our eye. The S4 includes a barometer, thermometer, and hygrometer (to measure humidity)—the first major smartphone to do so.

If you could care less about 13 megapixels on a smartphone camera but love to dream about the big data potential of smartphone sensors, these three are pretty cool additions. Temperature, pressure, and humidity are key weather station measurements.

Currently, smartphone or tablet users can buy external weather stations compatible with their devices. There’s even a selection of apps to record and analyze the data. But the only folks buying external weather stations are a few steps away from driving down Tornado Alley measuring wind speed and diameter of hail.

Bundle those sensors into the top selling smartphone in the world, however, and it’s a different ballgame. Pair these sensors with a few compelling apps, and instead of tens of thousands of weather stations, researchers could hypothetically have millions inside a year. (Samsung shipped 215 million smartphones in 2012!)

Why couldn’t these sensors do for weather what Google Maps does for traffic?

As readers likely know, Google strips smartphone GPS data of personal information, assembles it, and sends it back to users as real-time traffic estimates. The results are increasingly accurate traffic forecasts and route time estimates—a serious improvent on chopper reports from the local radio station.

SH 86_#3Using millions of smartphone data points, developers could knock out apps rendering detailed heat, humidity, and pressure maps and bundle them into weather apps. The data would be available at any given point in time, but maybe more powerfully, it would be available over time.

We’re talking billions of data points blanketing the globe each year. Climate studies might draw on smartphone data to inform their studies and reports. Why not?

The problem is, no one knows how accurate these new sensors are. The Galaxy S4 isn’t due out until May at the earliest. Further, unlike traffic-measuring GPS, for weather sensors to be useful, people will likely have to use them with the intent to measure. Mostly, smartphones are in climate-controlled rooms or pockets. Frankly, I’d rather not know the temperature, pressure, and humidity of my neighbor’s pants.

It seems almost inevitable, however, that more scientific sensors will become common in smartphones. As a side effect of the “specs” arms race, they could improve in quality dramatically. Not all these sensors will be used properly by every smartphone owner, but that’s the beauty of it. Manufacturers shipped 712 million new devices in 2012 alone. Even if weather bugs account for but 1% of that total, you've got seven million new mobile weather stations.

Image Credit: Samsung

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 7 Responses

  • ErikSMeyer April 1, 2013 on 1:59 pm

    Right, this illustrates much of the problem with the big data idea; the data points themselves are largely garbage, adding them up doesn’t improve that; worse, it makes them seem somehow more compelling. So people would be inclined to believe that graphs illustrating humidity and temperature and the rest of it, though based on measurements taken (using weak/bad sensors) from inside cars, buildings, jacket pockets, and countless flawed/skewed/meaningless sites, meant something.

    • gurdiac ErikSMeyer April 2, 2013 on 2:07 am

      As I understand it, the data would be collected by an app, which you have to turn on, so only those handsets that have the app turned on actually collect data.

      Personally I would much rather have the capacity for millions of people to collect data than not. We need to raise the profile of STEM in the general population, so anything like this that makes people think about science gets my vote. It works for Zooniverse. I am sure lots of people put duff data in to Zooniverse, but the outliers can processed out, in the same way that they process the erros out “recaptcha” data. Also if users get interested and start looking at the “big data” sets on the web, then they might start to get the idea that they need to take care collecting the data.

      This first foray in to sensors might not be the best, but you have to start somewhere, and it can only get better. The aggregated GPS data for traffic snarl-ups certainly works a treat!

  • Jane-Haywood April 1, 2013 on 5:59 pm

    I’m somewhat concerned about these, won’t they just be calculating the temperature of my pocket? I don’t think they will work very well, still doesn’t stop me having the GS4 on my WishPlz List though. At incase anyone wants to join me.

  • Eduard Ruzga April 2, 2013 on 2:15 am

    I am more curious of ingenious ways of using those sensors.
    We already had accelerometer used to detect sleep phases trough movement(well arguably not precise).
    We had camera and flash light used to detect pulse/heart rate.
    We had some other curious sensor usages too.
    Now we will have pressure, temperature and humidity sensor? Can for example person breath(if he targets them) measured with that to get some health insight? Body temperature by breath temperature? Humidity?

  • Jebidiah April 7, 2013 on 12:45 pm

    There has been an app at the Google Play Store for a while now that utilizes these sensors:

  • hawkmoon April 24, 2013 on 12:32 am

    Aginova has just launched the iCelsius Wireless on kickstarter. It is a Wifi device for montoring temperature, humidity and many other things that will directly send the data to SmartPhone/tablet… sensors and smartphone seem to be a hot topic

  • Nady Alex June 15, 2013 on 2:07 pm

    A ClimatSens for Samsung Galaxy S4 shows a Temperature, Light, Humidity and Atmosphere Pressure data on the screen in real time.