The futurist: How to build a better spoon

We're set to reach the trillion-sensor milestone around 2023

When was the last time you called a repairman to work on your mattress?

At a recent hotel stay, I found myself sleeping on a Sleep Number bed that seemed to adjust itself in the middle of the night. At times I’d wake up on a totally deflated bed and others it would be rock hard. Rather amusing, but not really very comfortable.

Naturally, the value of a high-tech bed is diminished when you lose sleep over it and have to pay for repairs. Next generation high-tech beds will have ways of detecting failures remotely and will either alert the owners and schedule a repairman, or the bed will simply repair itself.

(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)

The same is true for any number of common household items that will soon have digital features added to them like spoons, forks, plates, shoes, coats, belts, scarves and hats.

At first blush, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would need a better spoon, but once digital sensors enter the picture, it will be hard to imagine how we got along without them. In the future, it will be commonplace to have a spoon that tells you if your food is safe to eat, or what the temperature is, calorie count, ingredient list, dietary facts and much more.

In fact, once digital spoons appear in the stores, the overall market for spoons will suddenly quadruple overnight. Flatware manufacturers will see an instant spike with hundreds of millions of new spoons, knives and forks sold every year. But the utility of these utensils will boil down to a few tiny new sensors that produce added capabilities. 

The reason why adding sensors to common everyday items like spoons is so attractive is because it’s a known market with existing manufacturers, vendors and consumers.

We are now set to reach the trillion sensor milestone somewhere around 2023, but the center of activity for this projection will happen around ultra-high volume sensors like those I mentioned for spoons.

Since sensors are expensive to develop, the quickest path to profitability is through products with high volume sales. To help you imagine where we’re headed with this emerging new industry, I’ll step you through four of today’s more imaginative uses for sensors and touch on 64 more possible uses.

Hosting the First Trillion Sensor Summit

In October of 2013, Janusz Bryzek, an executive at Fairchild Semiconductor, hosted the first ever “Trillion Sensor Summit,” an event designed around creating a roadmap for achieving the world’s first trillion sensors.

The 250 attendees, representing 100 companies in 40 different countries, focused primarily on the market for ultra-high volume sensors, the ones in highest demand that could be efficiently produced.

For example, the first iPhone in 2007 came with only five sensors – proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, accelerometer, magnetometer and gyroscopic sensor.

Smartphones today come with as many as 21 by adding sensors for temperature, humidity, pressure, GPS, fingerprint, trilateration, ultrasound, touch, beacons, RFID, Bluetooth and a variety of image and sound sensors to track depth of field, ambient light, audio clutter, dynamic range, focal distance and more.

With sensors on smartphones doubling every four years, we should anticipate more than 160 sensors on every phone in 2027.

With annual smartphone shipments projected to reach 2 billion in 2020, any new sensor that makes it as a standard issue feature will be part of this enormous, 2-billion phone market.

Similarly, any sensor that becomes standard issue on every car will claim their piece of the 111 million-unit car market in 2020.

The same will be true for kitchen appliances like toasters, blenders, refrigerators and freezers; or clothing like hats, shoes, shirts and pants; or everyday products like Band-Aids, toothpaste, shampoo and hairspray.

Cutting Edge Sensors

Breakthroughs in sensor technology are now happening very quickly due to advances in material science, data analytics, 3D printing and a broadening array of tools for doing research. Since sensors are expensive to develop, many of the new technologies are targeted at health-related applications for faster returns on initial investments.

Here are four rather unusual new sensor technologies:

Ingestible Stethoscopes – Recently MIT announced one of their research teams had developed a stethoscope that can be swallowed. This pill-sized device comes armed with sensors to measure your heart rate and breathing as it passes through your gastrointestinal tract.  Using a tiny microphone like the one in your smartphone, this little device can listen to your lungs and separate inhale-exhale sounds from that of your heart. Being a new product, the actual market potential for ingestible stethoscopes is still unknown. But if it becomes a common substitute for medical checkups, numbers could mushroom quickly.  

Handheld Ultrasound Imager – Following a similar path, in June of 2015, serial entrepreneur Janusz Bryzek (former executive at Fairchild Semiconductor) launched a company called eXo System Inc. to develop a handheld ultrasound imager that requires no training to produce textbook quality pictures and videos of internal organs at a very low cost.

Cosmic-Ray Moisture Sensor – An Albuquerque-based company, Hydroinnova, has developed a cosmic-ray sensor to measure how many neutrons are in the air, and that information translates into how much water is in the soil. A measurement with a low amount of neutrons indicates a high amount of water is present in the soil; a high neutron count suggests a low amount of moisture.

As the mobile sensor unit moves across a farmer’s field, it takes a measurement every minute and reads a 1,000' radius circle, from about 1' into the ground. Essentially, it takes a CAT scan of a field to measure neutrons and soil moisture. The rate of coverage depends on resolution, but on a 2.5-acre grid, the cosmic-ray neutron rover scans 4,000 acres per day.

Edible Food Sensors – Scientists at Tufts University have engineered a silk-based material into a fully chewable food sensors. Pasted onto eggs, stamped onto fruit or floating in milk, it can warn you when your fruit is too ripe or when your milk has gone sour. The silk film doubles up as the sensor’s glue, turning sticky when exposed to water. The sensor is then pasted directly onto the food that needs tracking, eliminating the need for additional glue to keep it clinging to the surface.

64 Future Uses for Sensors

In the past, our sensor market was focused on a few key points of detection like heat, light, moisture, humidity, barometric pressure, proximity, rotational movement, and chemical composition. Even though these forms of detection will continue to make up a significant percentage of the sensor market in the future, the real potential for ultrahigh volume sensors will unfold in thousands of different ways.

Here are 64 examples of how the sensor market may unfold over the coming years.

Personal Safety Sensors

We are all concerned about what new kind of danger might be lurking close by.

  1. I'm-being-stalked sensors – Tracking reoccurring images of people around you.
  2. I’ve-been-data-mined sensors – Who is looking at my data and why?
  3. I’ve-been-hacked sensors – Someone is messing with me.
  4. Evil intent sensors – Spiderman has his famous “Spidey Sense” so why can’t we?
  5. Injury anticipation sensor – Many imminent dangers can indeed be anticipated.
  6. Bad air sensors – Is the air you’re breathing safe?
  7. Bad water sensors – How clean is the water you’re about to drink?
  8. Dangerous food sensors – There’s a big difference between bad-for-you food and dangerous food.

Next: Smart-shoe sensors and dating sensors

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