Do you realize just how clever that sleek smartphone in your pocket is? The truth is that most of us are only scratching the surface of what these things will do, and it’s a lot more than just GPS, music, video, texting and games. As well as the huge collection of wireless radios inside every handset, there are a growing number of sensors, which offer anything from pressure sensing to motion and temperature. Each of these sensors can be used by apps, and once you take a long look at what’s available you will be amazed at what our tiny handheld computer phones can do.
GammaPix turns your phone into a radiation detector. A real one. It does this miraculous trick by using the camera as an ultra sensitive ionizing radiation detector, but you’ll need to do some careful calibration first, and there’s no way it’s as sensitive as a real Geiger counter. A reading of the environment takes around 5 minutes if there’s no danger, but shorter if the app detects excessive levels of radiation. There are enough warnings and caveats littered around to make sure you understand you use this at your own risk.
This clever Metal Detector app uses your phone’s magnetic sensor to detect whether there’s any metal in the vicinity. It obviously won’t work with any non-magnetic material, but in our tests it really did register metal, even relatively small pieces such as you’d find in a door chain, incredibly well. The meter would shoot up from a default ambient 49u to 200+u. We couldn’t get it to register with metal wires embedded in our walls, but that’s maybe because the magnetic disturbance is too small. Quite an amazing tool though, even so.
Light Meter provides a light intensity meter which measures lux. The app uses the integrated light sensor in your phone, and can measure from 0 to 1000 lux in 2 ranges. As with most of these sensor apps, accuracy depends on first calibrating the phone properly, and in this case you need a real light meter to do the job properly. We found that the results were a little variable, but with better calibration we suspect this could be cured.
Most of the modern smartphones now contain barometric sensors (to help with GPS) which is how this Altimeter works. If you’re in a situation where you need to know how high up you are, this is the app to use. It actually uses either the barometric or GPS sensor, so there’s dual fallback in case you need to land that plane in an emergency. We couldn’t find a handy mountain to test, but it definitely worked up two flights of stairs.
The Sound Meter app is less of a surprising app, since it uses your phone’s microphone to take its readings. The app features a beautifully sensitive display, complete with a rolling chart of sound differences as they occur. It’s a great way to test your environment to see if you’re being subjected to excess noise, but probably not something you want to use in a crowded bar or club. We particularly like the text chart which shows equivalent sound levels as examples, e.g. busy street, alarm clock.
So if you’re ever stuck in a plane with a broken cockpit there should be enough apps out there to get you home in one piece if you don’t panic. This Aircraft Horizon tool uses the phone’s accelerometer, gyro and magnetometer to deliver pitch and roll information for your horizon needs. It’s part of a full set of free aircraft gauges, which seem to work extremely well. The only caveat is you need to pay for the full version to get more than 2 mins use per session.
This Thermometer app uses the internal temperature sensor, GPS and an Internet based weather service to provide both inside and outside temperatures in C or F. The inside temperature is clearly an ambient one, so it can vary from reality depending on the temp of the phone’s internals. Nevertheless it seems fairly accurate, and it’s definitely one up on sticking a finger in the air.
The EMF Sensor app uses the magnetic field sensor of your handset to take readings of local EMF (electro-magnetic fields) in the environment. Our testing showed that it definitely works, and if you want to try it out hold the phone up to the side of your monitor or laptop screen, and you’ll see the needle rise as it detects the increased EMF. We also found a scary amount of leakage from our microwave oven front panel during its operation! Well OK, not leakage, just a heavy duty field, which is normal. But still….
Designed to provide a warning if an earthquake is imminent, we’re not sure whether this Earthquake Vibration Sensor will work very well unless left sitting permanently on a desk as a static alarm. We also suspect that you will need to live in a vulnerable area to get the most out of this app, which leaves out most of us living in quake free bliss. Nevertheless an interesting application.
Physical fitness freaks may need to check out this Push-Up Sensor Male app, if only to reassure themselves that they don’t really need it. The software uses the proximity sensor of your phone to detect whether you’re doing your push-ups properly or not. Whether this is valuable to you will depend largely on your self-confidence, age and amount of pizza consumed per calendar month. For the rest of us, we can just sit back and enjoy the view.
Motion Sensor monitors your phone camera and sounds a buzzer alert if it detects motion crossing the lens. You can set the sensitivity of the monitoring and in our tests it definitely did act as a sort of rudimentary alarm system. It’s a shame that it doesn’t currently also take a snapshot of the camera view, but if you ever need a quick and dirty hotel room alarm or similar, this could be an emergency option. It could do with a range of different alarms as well.
This app has got to be one of our favorites. Pothole Detector uses the accelerometer of the phone to identify and log potholes as you’re driving around. We suspect that this is an app that would probably be very welcome with delivery men, postal workers and those transporting Nitroglycerin. But for the rest of us, not so much.
This Max Protractor app makes use of your phone’s camera, gravity sensor, and magnetic sensor to deliver that most important of things – angles. You can measure inclines, planes and plumb angles, and we’re guessing that this is another of those apps which, if you need it you need it. Apparently it only shows around 5% error compared with expensive laser equipment, which is reassuring if you’re building a hotel we guess.
Black Sensor Lite is a driver assistance app which uses the camera and accelerometer of the handset to provide lane departure warning (valuable if you’re driving while tired), motion detection and black box recording if an unfortunate event occurs. There’s also an emergency contact number feature which gives one button access to family, friends or insurance companies if an accident occurs. The free version is time limited.
It’s inevitable that with this much smartphone power on tap, someone would step in and try to use as much of it as possible, and so it is with Super Swiss Army Knife Free. Rather like its more metallic namesake, this app offers a palette of functions, including measuring tape, flashlight, compass, spirit level, magnifier and more. Regrettably there is actually no knife included in the app, which is sure to disappoint Boy Scouts everywhere.
Yet another in the lovely set of Smart Tools, this Vibrometer app is a vibration meter, which can track seismic occurrences and other aspects of a vibrational nature. Again it comes with a beautifully sensitive scale as well as an additional text chart option which offers examples of the type of vibration being experienced (e.g. dishes broken, difficult to stand). The scale is measured in Modified Mercalli Intensity, if that means anything to you.
With all the technology on-board a modern smartphone, it makes perfect sense for them to be combined into a silent car alarm. Car Shock Sensor Alarm sends an email alert to the car owner if someone hits or moves the vehicle without permission. The app will also send update emails at predetermined intervals as the vehicle continues to move. The software uses the GPS and accelerometer sensors and you can set the sensitivity to hits, and the timing of the email message notifications.
You will need a phone with an integrated barometric sensor for this Antique Barometer app to work, but if you’ve got one you’ll be able to keep very close tabs on the weather outside your window without getting wet or windy. Modeled on the old fashioned wall barometers which you tapped to get a precise reading, this is a lovely looking app and a great implementation of a classic weather watching tool.
Turn your phone into a baby alarm with this Baby Alarm app. The software will either call or SMS text you when the baby is crying, which should give you plenty of time to get back from that party across town. Just kidding. You can set up the sensitivity of the monitoring and also take a photo of crying baby with the camera if you need verification. A great way to use that old Android handset in the drawer.
A new trick of phone thieves is to steal handsets as they lie on tables while people enjoy a cup of tea or coffee at their favorite cafe. This Anti-Theft Alarm should be a great way to prevent those nasties. The app triggers a loud alarm if anyone touches or moves the phone at all, and only your PIN can switch it off. Great for stopping nosy family members too, we guess.
We couldn’t talk about phone sensors without reference to one of the most useful in the toolbox, the compass. And this 3D Gyro Compass from Finland is one of the nicest versions we’ve see. It features an old fashioned gimbal based compass as you’d find on a sailing ship, and has a beautiful graphic background to set it off. We’re not that impressed with the alternative blue themed compass, but the brass one is definitely a keeper for us.
Spirit Level Plus does exactly what it says on the tin. Place your phone on any surface and the digital spirit level will indicate whether the surface is level enough to meet your needs. The graphical bubble tubes look great, and the accuracy is impressive. Just make sure you calibrate as required and as the author says don’t rely on the app for anything really important, just in case.
This Electric Sleep app provides a fascinating example of the use of your phone’s accelerometer to measure your sleep patterns and give you an analysis of how well you slumber. It’s actually billed as a smart alarm, which wakes you at the optimum time, but we’re just as impressed with the sleep analysis. There’s not much there apart from a graph at the end of the night, but it’s enough to get a feel for how well or badly you did last night. There should be prizes for getting a high score (apart from not falling apart at work the next day).
You don’t often get the chance to use your phone’s gyroscope for anything serious, but this Sensor Mouse app gives you the chance in spades. The software lets you remotely control the mouse on your PC using nothing more than your home WiFi connection and the gyro and touchscreen on your phone. It’s simple and effective. Works with Windows and Mac computers, and you can also use it to control your media players and presentations. The interface is a little sparse, and it could with some instructions as well. But hey ho…
And just to tie it all together nicely, as The Dude would say, is AndroSensor. This app gives you more information about the multitude of sensors inside your Android phone than you could ever want to know. It covers literally everything from the multi-touch capabilities of your screen, to the distance over which your proximity sensor works. If you’re serious about learning more about the capabilities of your cell phone, this is the app you want to install.
Well that concludes our round up of this most excellent category of Android apps. Sensors are a miracle of technology and these apps are proof that where there’s a chip, there’s someone willing to exploit it to do wondrous things in the name of progress. It’s inevitable that as more and more sensors are embedded in these phones, we’ll see more exotic apps and more incredible functionality delivered to our pockets. One day your mobile phone could make Dr McCoy’s Tri-Corder look as old fashioned as a copper tea kettle.
Feel free to chime in with your own app examples in the comments.