In Depth: Here's how your phone is tracking you right now


Your mobile phone already knows where it is, how you’re holding it, what you’re saying to it and how fast you’re moving.

Yet with significant improvements in mobile sensor technology just around the corner, this is only the beginning chapter in the era of self-aware devices and continuous data logging. There’s much more to come.

We’re now used to phones and tablets recognising when they’re being held upside down and flipping the screen accordingly, but even this kind of technology is a relatively new innovation that has only become commonplace in the last four or five years.

You probably used one of the earliest consumer products to showcase these sensors, and it wasn’t a phone at all. It was the Nintendo Wii games console, which had millions of us panicking as we casually tossed a ‘bowling ball’ (remote) at the TV.

Making sense of sensors

You probably know a few of these, but there are so many more sensors packed into your tiny phone. The most obvious are the accelerometer, for measuring movement and orientation, and the gyroscope, for measuring angular rotation across three axes and giving more accuracy to the accelerometer reading.

Location services are taken care of with a magnetometer for detecting magnetic North and some form of GPS chip or a related variant to plot your position on the map.

On top of this there’s the proximity sensor for recognising when you move your phone up to your face during a call and an ambient light sensor for boosting brightness levels in dark environments.

iPhone 5S
Show me the way to go home… thanks to GPS

Like every electrical component, these sensors continue to get smaller, more powerful and cheaper. The total cost of all the sensors inside your brand new mobile phone is probably less than a handful of of your local currency, though as with any other hardware there are budget and premium options available.

The list price of the accelerometer in the new iPhone, for example, is $1, so this power doesn’t come at a great cost. Whatever the price though they’ve become an integral part of the mobile experience: imagine a tablet that doesn’t change orientation when you rotate it, or a phone that can’t give you directions back home.

The cutting edge

As technology advances, there are yet more sensors marking their ground. Apple’s most recent iPhones and iPads come with motion coprocessors, which add to the motion sensing capabilities of these devices. In practice, they can tell the difference between walking and driving, and take certain actions (such as switching off Wi-Fi) if you haven’t moved for a while.

If you’re on a train, these chips can be used to tell your phone or tablet to stop trying to attach to public networks as they whizz by. Fitness apps, meanwhile, can access accurate data about your movements with no need for a separate wristband.

Samsung isn’t shy of throwing everything it can into a handset, and this is certainly the case when it comes to the sensors packed into its handsets in recent years: the Galaxy S6 includes a total of nine sensors to keep an eye on you.

The latest flagship can scan your fingerprint, measure your heart rate, check the current temperature, and more besides. The collected data can be accessed through the S Health app or a third-party tool, enabling the phone to keep an eye on the state of the environment around you.

There’s also a barometer for measuring atmospheric pressure and a gesture sensor that detects hand movements through infrared rays.

Samsung Galaxy S6

So much for the here and now: what about the months and years to come? In short, more sensors and greater accuracy.


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