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A single sensor could hold the key to the future of the smart home

Synthetic Sensors: Towards General-Purpose Sensing
In the not so distant future, your smart home may not depend on a number of disparate smart appliances; instead, it could just utilize a single device that gives all your appliances a brain. That, at least, is the vision of Carnegie Mellon researchers in the Future Interfaces Group, who have developed a “synthetic sensor-based device that can monitor multiple types of phenomena in a room, including sounds, vibration, light, heat, electromagnetic noise, and temperature,” as reported by The Spoon. This little gadget boasts a total of nine sensors, and is capable of determining if a faucet’s been left on, if a microwave door is open, or the number of paper towels you’ve used.

“The idea is you can plug this in and immediately turn a room into a smart environment,” Gierad Laput, a Ph.D. student in CMU’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII), told The Spoon. “You don’t have to go out and buy expensive smart appliances, which probably can’t talk to each other anyway, or attach sensors to everything you want to monitor, which can be both hard to maintain and ugly. You just plug it into an outlet.”

The secret behind the smart sensor comes in the form of machine learning algorithms, capable of combining data feeds to distinguish various appliances and their uses. So based purely on an appliance’s sounds and vibration patterns, these sensors can tell whether they’re hearing a blender, a coffee grinder, or a mixer.

But the hope is that the sensors could soon do even more than that. The team is increasing the number of data feeds compatible with the sensors. That means that soon, they could also determine when a human leaves an environment, or when the AC or heater kicks on.

“Smart appliances are expensive and rarely talk to one another,” the researchers noted. “We’ve explored an alternate, general purpose sensing approach where a single, highly capable sensor board can indirectly monitor an entire room.”

And that’s a future we can look forward to.

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