Can you tell a glass of sparkling mineral water from Alka Seltzer, a “just ripe” melon from one that should be eaten only after a few days?
We perceive our environment through our eyes and they can only detect certain light wavelengths. Actually there are many more wavelengths available (and insects are able to exploit some of them). What if we insert in our cell phone a sensors that can be used to look at what is around detecting a much larger wavelength set? This is what some researchers at the Media Lab are trying to do.
Already today digital camera sensors (and the one in our cell phone are derived from those) can detect a broader wavelength set than the one detected by our eyes, and this is why manufacturers overlay on the sensor a filter to cut out those extra wavelengths. Remove that filter and you can get more data from the filter that would actually let a computer see more and discriminate characteristics in the environment (current sensors can detect infrared wavelength so a computer can get information on temperature of the object in the image…).
New sensors can be developed to intercept much broader wavelength spectrum and there may be a system of filters that can be over layered to restrict wavelengths depending on the purpose of the photo. There might even be sensors having individual pixel with different sensitivity to wavelength (or with different filter over layered) and these can be selected via software, thus allowing the detection of different characteristics in objects.
This is what people at the Media Lab are working on, embedding a sensor in your cell phone you can use to find out more about your environment. To this filter a glass full of Alka Seltzer would look very different from one filled with sparkling mineral water, a ripe melon looks different from one you are not supposed to eat for a few more days…
More specialized sensors are also in the making, such as the one shown in the photo, developed by NASA to fit your iPhone. This sensor plug in the iPhone port and can detect a number of substances in the environment. An app in your phone (or in the web for more serious analyses) can process these data and give you a quite different view of the place you are in.. It can also be used to create a map of the environment as more and more cell phone report data. Get ready for a new way to look around yourself!