Sensor technologies are all the rage right now, and for good reason. As a kid one of my favorite watches was a Casio with a temperature sensor in it, yet my iPhone 5 has to traverse a network of hardware devices to tell me the temperature, and even then the sensor is miles away. If we want our devices to be smarter, they're going to need more sensory input about our surroundings. I interviewed Dr. George Yu, the man behind the Node, a platform for sensory input which happens to work with iOS devices.
Today there's news of the Lapka set of sensors for your iPhone, and a few days ago I read news of the SCOUT, a sort of personal medical Tricorder (although nowhere near as powerful as the ones featured in Star Trek). While Lapka looks nice, how many people really need to measure radiation on a regular basis? Also, logging your EM field for the day is great, but what's the practical use?
What's been lacking in the past has been a sort of basic utility device with attachments that you can add as needed, all of which enable your iPhone to "see" the world around it. As if the iPhone were compatible with Batman's utility belt. Enter Node, a sort of Wiimote-meets-Tricorder device that's more of a platform than iOS accessory. It's designed to be functional, has high-grade equipment inside and is hacker friendly.
Dr. Yu founded Variable Technologies after building a gas sensor for the government which attached to the iPhone. When the product was never brought to market, Yu's passion for tinkering took over and a Kickstarter project launched the first round of Node base units and sensors. While we rarely cover Kickstarter projects because they are often one-off products which often fall short of expectations, Variable Tech's use of the Kickstarter platform was merely the beginning. It, along with some years of experience in building the gas sensor, allowed Yu's team to go from concept plans to product in 11 months. He says they can now go from the concept of a sensor to actual production in a mere three months. This isn't just a company rethinking iPhone sensors, it's rethinking how we make hardware.
Speaking of hardware, the Node is exceptionally well built. The white plastic cylinder looks and feels as tough as a Wii remote, and the internal components were chosen for performance, not price. In particular, the Bluetooth module is fast, making connecting much less of a chore than in the past. Compared to some other devices the pairing was fast indeed, and Bluetooth 4 is now supported across all Apple mobile devices. A simple USB port connects for charging and this "Kore" unit contains motion sensors like the iPhone and Wii remote, allowing you to wake the device up my a gentle shake.
The Node is based on the Kore unit, and additional sensors are attached at either end of the Kore's cylinder. The Clima module is like my old Casio, with a temperature gauge and barometer, ambient light and humidity. Other sensors currently shipping include the Therma, a point-and-shoot temperature sensor, and the Chroma, a color sensor. The Chroma sounds puzzling at first, but if you've ever tried to match colors on a wall when you go to the paint store, only to discover this nifty thing called "automatic white balance" is driving you insane, you will immediately understand the Chroma's utility.
Of course Variable Tech has much more planned, and I saw the Oxa gas sensor in person although it is not yet shipping. That sensor goes back to Dr. Yu's roots, and yet is still one of many more sensors in the works, he assured me. He envisions "modules like apps," and at the rate they are able to execute, I'd say that's about right.
As I said earlier, the Node is a platform. Instead of a locked-down, proprietary method of exchanging data, the Node has an API. Data files are kept clean and simple. The hardware itself can even be tinkered with, similar to Arduino. The awesome thing is that developers can write applications for the Node platform, opening up a whole new world of possibility for sensor-based apps.
In years gone by dedicated hardware would be required for these tasks, and the costs were higher as a result. But the Node starts at $149, and sensors are around $75 (more or less, depending on the cost of components). Even if you bought the range of sensors (and the flashlight) you're looking at a cheaper, more powerful toolkit than what a trunk full of gear would have been just five years ago. That's significant, and the sensory evolution has only just begun.