Big Mother Gets Street Smart

By Karen Lightman

Originally posted as a guest blog on Design News.  


You have probably heard of the concept of Big Mother as coined by Julie Ask of Forrester Research. Though it is not as ominous as Big Brother — which smacks of scary omniscience — there is still some interplay between technology and personal behavior.

According to Julie’s definition of Big Mother, sensor data is integrated into applications to guide us gently into better behavior. We are reminded to sit up straight by our LUMOback waistbands, or we work out smarter thanks to our FitBit wristbands and BodyMedia armbands. These are cool and compelling, but how is my mobile device going to guide me to the nearest exit of an over-Yankee-Candled indoor mall or help save the battery on my smartphone by powering down when its inborn intelligence infers that I am at the movies? When and how is my mobile device going to get to know me and help me in my world? When is Big Mother going to get street smart?


Pedestrian navigation, anyone? Movea’s data fusion solutions, which include data and processing models, engines, and ecosystem-enabling tools for rapid prototyping, development, and integration, may be just the thing for context-aware applications.

Well, the answer is nigh, because MEMS is enabling smartphones to deliver information to the user that is more personalized and more contextually aware. But to understand the capabilities of MEMS context awareness, we must start with the basics: the MEMS hardware in the mobile devices that will capture the data. The market for MEMS accelerometers, BAW filters, gyroscopes, magnetometers, microphones, microdisplays, and pressure sensors in mobile devices is expected to exceed $5.4 billion by 2017, according to Yole Development. Combine that growth with the push toward cloud computing and the increased pervasiveness of public data (GPS location, transit schedules, electronic billboards, etc.) and personal information (like location and purchasing habits). Now just imagine how much data can be captured.

Yes, this is when you truly have to believe in Big Mother, who, though inherently benevolent, raises privacy concerns of her own. You can’t argue with the fact that technology is trending toward pervasive sensor-provided data. Now what do we do with all that rich data that MEMS sensors are providing?

Context awareness is the MEMS industry’s new frontier for both consumer and personal healthcare/quality-of-life applications. Want to personalize your smartphone so it rings only when it’s face up? That’s possible today. How about navigating multiple floors inside the Mall of America or enhancing the decision-making ability of a person with Alzheimer’s? That’s coming soon, I hope.

Though we have only scratched the surface of context awareness, we already have examples of contextually aware smartphones, the latest of which is the new Samsung Galaxy S4. It is chock full of MEMS and sure looks smarter than then the average smartphone. According to a March 14 Samsung press release, the Galaxy S4’s “combination of sensors built within the device systematically and automatically monitors your health, surroundings and so much more to help improve your quality of life. Also, users can easily check their health conditions using [the] food diary, exercise diary and sleep monitor to stay fit and healthy.” It certainly seems like Samsung is leveraging the power of context awareness. Google and Apple can’t be far behind in announcing their own versions of context-aware smartphones.

I am also confident we will see context awareness in applications beyond smartphones. Wouldn’t you want a context-aware car or a context-aware home? I imagine that, in the next five to seven years, we will start to see smartphones that contextually connect our automobiles to roads and to home. A true Internet of Things world will begin to happen only when we have context awareness, and yes, it is made possible by MEMS. That’s what I would call a street-smartphone.


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