Most apps are boring. Sensors can help. Sensors are data collectors that measure physical properties such as location, pressure, humidity, touch, voice and much more. You can find sensors almost everywhere these days, most obviously in mobile devices that have accelerometers, GPS and microphones. But most apps use only a fraction of sensors' full capabilities.
Apps without sensors fly blind. They don't listen. In short, despite their best efforts, they are at a disadvantage. But as sensors continue to proliferate, leading application developers will eagerly use them to make existing apps smarter and ultimately improve customer experiences.
Sensors allow you to incorporate advanced functions into your apps in three ways:
Content enrichment lets users see what they can't see. A simple display of sensor data can add value to almost any application. For example, if you use Google Maps to calculate a route, it also provides real-time traffic information generated from location sensors in smartphones. Commonwealth Bank of Australia has an app for prospective realty buyers. Their app uses the phone's GPS, accelerometer and camera to overlay images of nearby properties onto the landscape as you pan your phone around.
Context detection. For example, Philips is testing an in-store navigation system that uses a mobile handset's camera to detect LEDs in the ceiling and figure out the customer's location. In the future, Google's traffic information could be enhanced as sensor data from cars--like braking, steering-wheel movement and windshield wiper activity--indicates rain, snow or icy conditions.
Predictive apps anticipate what users need even before the users realize they need it and helps them make that happen without searching through menus or swiping the screen excessively. Union Pacific uses acoustic and visual sensors to predict possible train derailments. And Mercedes-Benz USA uses sensors in some car models to predict when a driver is becoming fatigued and then push a "take a break" notification to the instrument panel.
Mike Gualtieri is a principal analyst at Forrester Research, serving application development and delivery professionals.