Long-time New Atlas readers can hardly have missed the so-called internet of things, and its domesticated subset of smart technology in the home. We've had this for years now. You may well already have smart devices controlling your heating, media, lighting and appliances – or smart devices that control themselves.
What might the future of smart home technology look like? Two scientists at Case Western Reserve University believe it could well include sensors that monitor movement, vibrations and sounds of people or even pets – something they are calling (wait for it…) the "internet of ears."
Ming-Chun Huang and Soumyajit Mandal have been experimenting with sensors that monitor movement and subtle changes in the existing ambient electrical field.
These walls have ears
"We are trying to make a building that is able to 'listen' to the humans inside," says Huang, who is leading the research related to human gait and motion tracking. "We are using principles similar to those of the human ear, where vibrations are picked up and our algorithms decipher them to determine your specific movements. That's why we call it the 'internet of ears.'"
Mandal is concentrating on vibration sensing and changes in the existing electrical field caused by presence. "There is actually a constant 60 Hz electrical field all around us, and because people are somewhat conductive, they short out the field just a little," Mandal said. "So, by measuring the disturbance in that field, we are able to determine their presence, or even their breathing, even when there are no vibrations associated with sound." Humans' effect on electricomagnetic fields is something we've seen previously in research from the University of California into surveillance using Wi-Fi signals.
As with the California research, an obvious application of this technology is in monitoring energy consumption related to how many people are in a building but also where they are located at any given time. "The first advantage will be energy efficiency for buildings, especially in lighting and heating, as the systems adjust to how humans are moving from one room to another, allocating energy more efficiently," Huang said.
And again, there could be scope to apply this technology to building safety, particularly in earthquake or hurricane regions. The sensors could track human occupancy and movement in a building and use that data to measure a building's structural integrity and safety.
"This hasn't really been explored as far as we've seen, but we know that humans create a dynamic load on buildings, especially in older buildings," Huang said. "In collaboration with our colleague YeongAe Heo in Civil Engineering, we are trying to predict if there is going to be structural damage because of the increased weight or load based on the number of people on the floor or how they are distributed on that floor."
State of surveillance
Smart devices in the home often raise privacy concerns. The proposal here uses hidden sensors in walls and floors instead of cameras, with the device listening instead of watching, making it potentially less invasive but, at the same time, perhaps easier to hide. Another upside is that, compared to cameras, it is less easy to identify individuals, though it may be possible to train the system to recognize the gait of specific people which could have interesting security applications like identifying potential home intruders.
We're seeing a growing body of research into non-optical means of observation and surveillance that can still, in some senses, see people through walls. And while there are clearly both innocent and useful applications for such technology, one can't help feeling we're tiptoeing towards a world of omnipresent surveillance – even in our own homes.
Source: Case Western Reserve University
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