Chipping in

Small intelligent sensors originally developed by a UK firm to help large multinational companies in their market research are to find their way into the smart homes of the future.

Over the past two years Whistonbrook Technologies of Luton has been trialling the technology with a large multinational consumer goods firm to monitor the usage of products during consumer trials.

During the market research process companies provide sample products to a large trial group of customers and ask them to record their usage and opinions over a period of time. However, market researchers estimate that only around 25 per cent of the feedback is accurate and that many of the forms filled out by customers have been falsified.

Whistonbrook incorporated a variety of sensors into products that ranged from temperature and light sensors to monitor products kept in the fridge, to weight sensors that could measure how much of the product had been used.

Technical director Dr Stephen Edwards said that the main problem in incorporating these sensors into the products was ensuring that the batteries lasted for the entire trial period. To save power, a microprocessor in the sensor put it into ‘sleep’ mode, only to wake it when a change or ‘event’ was detected.

Another challenge was making sure that the sensors were sufficiently robust to survive in hostile environments such as bathrooms or refrigerators. To overcome this the sensors were packaged in a polymer material that was moulded to fit inside the product but would not contaminate food. ‘We had to develop a different sensor, and packaging, for each product,’ said Edwards. ‘At the end of six weeks you take out the smart chip and download all the information on to a PC which gives you a plot of usage. This is really interesting information for market researchers when they are about to launch a new product.’

Whistonbrook also experimented with using wireless technology to transmit the sensor’s logged information to a base station in the consumer’s home. The base station could then send the data using mobile phone technology to a database which could log the usage in real time. The company has a patent pending on this aspect of the design.

Despite the success of the trial, Edwards believes that the future of the technology is not in market research. He said that in the smart homes of the future these sensors could be linked to a PC and provide homeowners with real-time information on their water, gas and electricity usage. Whistonbrook is in talks with a number of firms to take this idea further over the next couple of years, he added.