Technology: Smartphone science (2023)

Researchers are learning how to convert devices into global laboratories.

A decade ago, Dutch astronomer Frans Snik invented a simple optical device to measure the density of dust, soot and other particles, or aerosols, in the atmosphere that affect human health and the climate. He hoped to launch it into orbit around Earth aboard a satellite. But one afternoon in 2011, Snik held up a demonstration version of his device to an iPhone camera. The smartphone's screen displayed a rainbow of colours: Snik's optical device was converting incoming light into a spectrum that contained polarization information and channelling it into the camera. Snik realized that he could pair smartphones with the optical device and make the same kind of measurements that he and his colleagues planned to record from space.

An idea was born. “We thought, why not make use of a technology that millions of people carry around in their pockets anyway?”

Technology: Smartphone science (1)

Researchers measure atmospheric aerosols with iSPEX optical devices and smartphones. Credit: iSPEX Project

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By 2013, Snik and his colleagues at Leiden University in the Netherlands had given or sold a version of the optical device — called iSPEX — to more than 8,000 willing iPhone users across the country. The users followed instructions provided by an associated app to attach the optical devices to their iPhone cameras and photographed the sky in their local areas. Within a day, reams of crowdsourced spectra had stacked up in an online database, ready for analysis. It resulted in a Netherlands-wide map of atmospheric particles with unprecedented resolution (F. Snik et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 7351–7358; 2014) — several years before the proposed satellite launch and for a fraction of the original estimated cost. The team has since received funding from the European Union to repeat the project in 11 European cities.

Citizen science

Many researchers are finding ways to exploit smartphones. Snik's project, and those of some geophysicists, astronomers and other scientists who need huge data sets, go one step further. They recruit citizen scientists who use their own smartphones to collect data that would be difficult — if not impossible — to obtain in conventional ways. The various internal sensors that smartphones carry, such as cameras, microphones, accelerometers and pressure gauges, coupled with user-friendly apps offer a way for the public to contribute high-quality data. “There are tons of possibilities for science,” says Travis Desell, a computer scientist at the University of North Dakota who designs research projects that run on smartphones.

Scientists who want to exploit the potential of smartphones first need to assess whether the devices can obtain the measurements they need. They must then decide which software platform will optimize the proposed use, before ironing out any errors or 'bugs' in the apps that will be used to collect data. Scientists should also determine how to screen out invalid data. And they need to find ways to recruit participants.

Although recruiting the public isn't complicated, thanks to social media, it can still be time-consuming. Snik and his colleagues had a head start — the iSPEX project was covered by the Dutch media, which prompted a few thousand citizens to send in requests to participate. The team drummed up a similar number of contributors by collaborating with the charity Lung Foundation Netherlands in Amersfoort, which invited participation from supporters who were concerned about the effects of aerosols on health. Even so, the iSPEX researchers had to spend a year and a half on their crowdsourcing campaign, which involved uploading instruction manuals and video tutorials to a website, posting calls for support on social media and in online publications, and answering questions. But their efforts paid off when they received more than 6,000 submissions of data.

The more technical aspects of crowdsourcing data can be trickier to master, and it helps to have some technological savvy. Scientists will find it useful to know how to write an app or how to manufacture an inexpensive hardware 'add-on' (see 'How to create a hand-held research toolkit'). But if a researcher is not an adept programmer, help is available. Snik and his team turned to DDQ, a Netherlands-based company that creates apps that are tailored to citizen science. Researchers who lack funds for third-party support can learn to write an app themselves, thanks to a wealth of free online tutorials and discussion forums.

Researchers also need to decide which software platform to select. Snik and his colleagues chose the popular Apple iOS: the physical similarity between iPhone models made it easier to design a compatible add-on. But the leading platform, Google's Android, has advantages, too. It is less strict about the nature of apps and presents fewer barriers to its instrumentation.

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Remote-sensing scientist Liam Gumley at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has developed an app that aims to improve weather forecasting by comparing photos of the sky taken from smartphones with satellite imagery. He has advice for anyone who is interested in smartphone-aided science: “Just do it!” Gumley recommends drawing up a set of storyboards that describe exactly what the app will do, what each screen will look like and what will happen when the user touches an onscreen control or a button. It is also a good idea, he says, to determine whether any data processing will be performed by the app or by a server online. Depending on the type of processing that is required, one might be faster than the other.

Big data

Researchers must also be ready with a database that can accommodate a deluge of data. “If you release the app globally, you may get more data than you expect within days,” warns Qingkai Kong, a PhD student in seismology at the University of California, Berkeley, who is working on MyShake, a seismology app. After extrapolating from a small group of users how much data he and his colleagues were likely to receive, they turned to Amazon Web Services to host their database. Other available cloud-computing services include the Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure.

Once the data have been collected, it can be difficult to know whether they are reliable. Kong and his colleagues are refining MyShake so that it can distinguish between an actual seismic event and when a user is shaking a phone. A similar app, known as CSN-Droid and designed by scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, was discontinued because it could not reliably make such distinctions. But Kong thinks that rigorous testing will reveal ways to improve MyShake's accuracy.

Smartphones are very powerful and very flexible.

Particle physicist Daniel Whiteson of the University of California, Irvine, is also tackling data reliability. He and his colleagues have developed an app called CRAYFIS (Cosmic Rays Found in Smartphones) that enables smartphone users to observe and record the particle debris that is generated when high-energy cosmic rays strike Earth's atmosphere (D. Whiteson et al. Preprint at; 2014). If several hundred smartphones in a kilometre radius simultaneously detect a signal, or 'blip', the app registers the event as a cosmic-ray shower. The more blips that occur in a given radius, the greater the energy of the primary cosmic ray. But there is still the possibility that synchronous blips could originate from sources other than cosmic rays — including detector noise or ambient light.

Whiteson and his team hope to rule this out by recording the metadata that accompany blips, such as their time and location. If a smartphone is left in one place to record data, the researchers will be able to characterize sources of ambient light and noise so that genuine cosmic-ray signals become readily apparent. More than 150,000 people worldwide have already signed up to participate in the CRAYFIS study, but before they release the app officially, the researchers want to make sure it is free of performance issues that could drive contributors away. The team is currently running a test version of the app on 1,000 phones worldwide.

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Despite the glitches, apps that crowdsource data are especially attractive for researchers because they can overcome issues that might prevent the collection of data. “The prospect that seismic data in large earthquakes can be obtained from consumer electronics is potentially transformative,” says Tom Heaton, a seismologist at Caltech. “One major obstacle to acquiring seismic data in a building is that the building owners are frightened by the prospect that researchers will uncover a critical safety issue.”

Just as smartphones have become indispensable for many scientists' day-to-day lives, they might also prove to be transformative vehicles for some experiments. “Gone are the days when governments would invest US$10 billion to $15 billion on new types of infrastructure, so it's important to think about the infrastructure that's already been built,” Whiteson says. “Smartphones are very powerful and very flexible. It's an enormous platform that we're only now beginning to think about for science.”

Box 1: How to create a hand-held research toolkit

Converting smartphones into a tool for citizen science is likely to require an app, and could also involve designing and manufacturing hardware accessories, or 'add-ons'. There is plenty of help available online for researchers who want to write their own app. Google's Android, the world's most popular mobile-device operating system, is supported by a development community that provides walk-through tutorials and guides to achieving specific functions.

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Technology: Smartphone science (2)

Credit: Claire Welsh/Nature

The second-most popular mobile operating system, Apple's iOS, has a similar community called the Apple Developer Forums. And app developers for the Windows Phone can check in to the Microsoft Virtual Academy. Other websites offer free training, such as Alison, which takes novices through the app-writing process from start to finish.

The potential of apps for research has been recognized by Apple, which last year launched an online resource called ResearchKit. Developed with help from various universities and other research centres worldwide, ResearchKit is a set of tools and services that assist researchers to design and administer app-based studies for the iPhone (see Nature 531, 422–423; 2016). The only catch is that ResearchKit is geared towards medicine. Apps that already benefit from it include mPower, which monitors people with Parkinson's disease, and GlucoSuccess, which assesses how daily activities affect glucose levels.

Whatever the research goal, it is best to start with the basics. “I read a few tutorials and wrote a small do-nothing app,” says particle physicist Daniel Whiteson at the University of California, Irvine, who is working on an app to record cosmic-ray events. “Then I slowly added functionality — such as accessing the camera and uploading data to another computer — until it was doing what I wanted.”

Creating add-ons for smartphones is a different challenge, but such devices need not be complex. In 2014, Steve Lee and his colleagues at the Australian National University in Canberra discovered that a smartphone camera could be given a magnification factor of up to 160 by attaching a single pea-sized lens. Costing less than an Australian cent (under US$0.01), the lens is created by allowing a droplet of polymer to harden on a curved substrate. “It forms a basic low-powered microscope system,” says Lee.

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Lee's droplet lens builds on an existing smartphone instrument — its camera — but not all add-ons do. SCiO is a standalone near-infrared spectrometer developed by the start-up firm Consumer Physics in Israel. Due for release in July, the device will scan materials to provide molecular information and connect to a smartphone through Bluetooth wireless technology.


What is the science behind smartphone? ›

A microchip in the phone modulates (or varies) a radio wave using the electrical signal. The radio wave travels through the air to a nearby cell tower; the tower sends your voice to the person you are calling and the process is reversed so that the person on the other end can hear your voice.

What is the technology of smartphone? ›

Smartphones typically contain a number of metal–oxide–semiconductor (MOS) integrated circuit (IC) chips, include various sensors that can be leveraged by pre-included and third-party software (such as a magnetometer, proximity sensors, barometer, gyroscope, accelerometer and more), and support wireless communications ...

What is mobile phones and science? ›

A mobile phone or cell phone is an electronic telecommunications device with the same basic capability as a conventional fixed-line telephone, but which is also entirely portable and is not required to be connected with a wire to the telephone network.

What is the scientific impact of mobile phones? ›

Cell phones emit low levels of non-ionizing radiation when in use. The type of radiation emitted by cell phones is also referred to as radio frequency (RF) energy. As stated by the National Cancer Institute, "there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans.

What is the science behind the first phone? ›

The needle was connected by wire to the battery, and the battery was connected by wire to a receiver. When Bell spoke into the open end of the drumlike device, his voice made the paper and needle vibrate. The vibrations were then converted into an electric current which traveled along the wire to the receiver.

How are smartphones related to chemistry? ›

If you are wondering what chemistry has to do with smartphones, just look at the periodic table. Of the 83 stable (nonradioactive) elements, at least 70 of them can be found in smartphones! That's 84% of all of the stable elements.

What are the benefits of smartphone technology? ›

It has paved the way for SMS, text messages, calls, video chat, and applications that allow individuals to connect with others around the world instantly. They fit easily into your pocket or bag. Moreover, they don't weigh much. There are inexpensive models available for those with a limited budget.

Why is smartphone so important? ›

Not only can you send texts, emails, and make calls, you have access to a full menu of computer capabilities as well. In other words, anything you can do on a computer, you can perform on a smartphone. Plus, costs have come down so much that a standard device now is within reach of most consumers.

Why is mobile technology important? ›

Mobile devices reduce the need for expensive technology, such as landline carrier services. Cloud-based services are cheaper than using any of the systems Technology can also give your business more flexibility and improved productivity.

What are the 4 main uses of smartphones? ›

Uses include:
  • Sending and receiving emails, text, photographs and multimedia messages.
  • Registering contacts.
  • Calculator, currency conversions, alarm, etc. functions.
  • Browsing the Internet using a mobile browser.
  • Playing games.
  • Video chat.
  • Mobile payment for goods or services.
  • Barcode scanning.

What do you know about science technology? ›

Science explores new knowledge methodically through observation and experimentation. Technology is the application of scientific knowledge for various purposes.

What is mobile in computer science? ›

Mobile Computing is a technical field that covers the design, development and evaluation of mobile applications using appropriate solutions that meet user requirements. This includes learning the technology that is used to perform a wide variety of tasks on devices that are portable.

How does smartphone technology affect society? ›

Impacts of Smartphones on Society

Some advantages smartphones provide – better means of communication, learning options to users, great exposure to the latest things, ways to personality development, simple ways to access applications, ideas to succeed in business, platforms to grow their applications, and more.

How has the use of smartphone affect human life? ›

Because smartphones and other devices give information and entertainment rapidly, they can make us less patient with real conversation with people in our lives. Also, that lack of face-to-face interaction can lead to depression.

How will smartphones affect the future? ›

Smartphones in 2030 could have holographic display technologies which could render 3D images or videos that would float above the device and be viewed from any angle without the need to wear 3D glasses.

What energy does a phone use? ›

What type of energy does a cellular phone use? Cell phones (and cell phone towers) use low-powered radiofrequency (RF) energy, a type of non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation is not able to break the chemical bonds in your body.

How do smartphones communicate? ›

Mobile phone converts voice, text, multi-media messages or data calls into Radio Frequencies (RF). Mobile phone base stations transmit and receive these RF signals and connect callers to other phones and other networks.

Who invented cell phone theory? ›

Martin Cooper, byname Marty Cooper, (born December 26, 1928, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.), American engineer who led the team that in 1972–73 built the first mobile cell phone and made the first cell phone call. He is widely regarded as the father of the cellular phone.

How is a phone related to physics? ›

Cell phones use antennae to transmit and receive radio waves that carry binary information. Every cell tower presides over an area of land, where it receives and transmits radio waves. When a text message is written, it is transmitted as binary code using a particular frequency of radio waves specific to that user.

How does technology connect to chemistry? ›

The connection to chemistry comes about through the materials, process, and packaging technologies used to fabricate the devices. Microelectromechanical devices are fabricated using silicon-based processing, and thus the processing, packaging, reliability, and manufacturability all depend on a chemical knowledge base.

How are cell phones related to math? ›

When you place a cell phone call, the phone must send out an electronic signal which carries a digitalized version of your speech (mathematics comes into play here through the use of error correction and data compression).

How smartphone is useful for students? ›

Students today do not have to wait to access their school library. With a smartphone, they have access to the biggest global library, i.e., the internet with them. They can take it helps for all of their assignments, exams, homework, doubts, literally everything.

Is smartphone a technology? ›

Currently, mobile technology is typified by internet-enabled devices like smartphones, tablets and watches. These are the latest in a progression that includes two-way pagers, notebook computers, mobile telephones (flip phones), GPS-navigation devices and more.

Why having a smartphone is important to students? ›

Smartphones provide the ability to get answers really fast. In some situations, a student may not ask for clarification to a question he or she has in an open classroom—because they can use their smartphone to get the answer they're looking for. Audio and video can bring learning to life.

Do smartphones improve our lives? ›

Our smartphones have become an extension of ourselves. We use them to communicate with others, search for things online, and save important moments by taking photos and videos. We practically spend several hours each day using them—always making sure to have them within our reach.

What is the most important thing in a smartphone? ›

Battery Life

This is arguably the most critical aspect—after all, a phone is only as good as its battery capacity.

What is the future mobile technology? ›

Data transfer speeds are expected to be about 10 times higher with 5G than is possible with 4G. Downloading a HD movie takes10 minutes with 4G, but can be less than a second with 5G. Future innovations have been predicted. Flexible, bendable and foldable phones are expected.

How has mobile technology changed our lives? ›

If your car breaks down, you automatically call for help instead of having to walk to find a pay phone. Cell phones have certainly made our lives much more convenient. Cell phones have also changed the way that people interact with each other. When we call someone, we are actually calling the person and not a place.

What are 3 benefit of mobile phone? ›

1) The primary advantage of a mobile phone is that you can talk to anyone from anywhere. 2) It is key to enjoy various social media platforms. 3) Mobile phones are a great source of entertainment like watching movies or playing games. 4) Most of the booking can be done online using mobile phones.

What is smartphone in simple words? ›

A smartphone is a handheld electronic device that provides a connection to a cellular network and the internet. The world's first smartphone was created by IBM in 1994, nicknamed Simon.

What is the main part of smartphone? ›

Central processing unit

Mobile phones have central processing units (CPUs), similar to those in computers, but optimised to operate in low power environments. In smartphones, the CPU is typically integrated in a system-on-a-chip (SoC) application processor.

What are 4 types of science technology? ›

The four major branches of science are, Mathematics and logic, biological science, physical science, and social science.

How is technology a part of science? ›

Science is the study of the natural world by scientific method i.e. collecting data through a systematic process. And technology is where we apply science to create devices that can solve problems and perform different tasks. Technology is literally the application of science.

What is the benefit of technology science? ›

Scientific knowledge allows us to develop new technologies, solve practical problems, and make informed decisions — both individually and collectively. Because its products are so useful, the process of science is intertwined with those applications: New scientific knowledge may lead to new applications.

What is mobile technology in education? ›

... Mobile technology allows teaching and other educational activities to be delivered anywhere and anytime removing any geographical barriers, thus providing more freedom to learners (Sheng et al., 2010).

What is the latest technology in mobile phones? ›

5G Connectivity

The implementation of advanced technologies such as IoT, AI, AR, and cloud computing into mobile devices is possible due to the enhancement of wireless connectivity.

How the smartphone changed the world? ›

When asked how the smartphone had changed their lives, the most common responses were that it brought them into closer contact with their friends and families and helped them be better informed. At least 75 percent of respondents in every country agreed that this constant connection was mostly positive.

How do smartphones make life easier? ›

With these phones, sharing photos, videos, audio, and more online and between friends or family is even easier. You can even hold live video calls with some models. Smartphones have allowed communication to reach a whole new level, keeping friends and family in much better contact than ever before.

How Can smartphones be improved in the future? ›

Future phones: what's in store for us?
  • Under-display cameras. The Axon 40 Ultra. ...
  • Zero ports and wireless charging. ...
  • Foldables everywhere. ...
  • Holographic displays. ...
  • Educational tools. ...
  • Eco-friendly and refurbished smartphones.
5 days ago

How smartphones are changing our brains? ›

Scientists aren't sure if technology is destroying our brains, but they're pretty confident it can trigger some obsessive behaviors that look a lot like addiction, and lead to depression. It's also slowing down our thinking processes. Some tasks are better done off the phone, research suggests.

How is physics used in mobile phone? ›

The Physics of Rotational Motion

Navigational devices like the GPS system in your phone depend on gyroscopes to analyze the rotational motion of moving objects. Your phone contains a very sensitive gyroscope that determines how it moves along three axes of rotation.

Which chemical is released during using smartphone? ›

Countless studies have shown that phone activity causes the release of dopamine in our brains, making us feel aroused, motivated, and happy.

How is quantum physics used in smartphones? ›

Your smartphone literally contains billions of transistors and other semiconductor elements. These can work as building blocks of digital electronic logic because of quantum mechanics – only quantum physics makes it possible to design the silicon-based materials in these integrated circuits to where they are now.

What makes something a smartphone? ›

A smartphone is a cellular telephone with an integrated computer and other features not originally associated with telephones such as an operating system, web browsing, and the ability to run software applications.

What is the chemistry in phone? ›

The majority of today's phones use lithium ion batteries. These batteries tend to use lithium cobalt oxide as the positive electrode in the battery (though other transition metals are sometimes used in place of cobalt), whilst the negative electrode is formed from carbon in the form of graphite.

Why does a cell phone vibrate science? ›

As the voice coil's magnetic field changes it pushes the magnet, which moves up and down, pressing on a spring. It's a bit similar to how a loudspeaker works but instead of producing sound, it is set up to produce vibrations at a frequency specific to the device.

Is there chemistry in phone? ›

A smartphone actually consists of various metals and can average up to over 60 different types of metals within one cell phone. Simply chemistry and the periodic table makes it possible for a smartphone to function at the high rate that it does.

What energy is produced by phone? ›

Cell phones emit low levels of non-ionizing radiation while in use. The type of radiation emitted by cell phones is also referred to as radio frequency (RF) energy.

What energy is used in phones? ›

Cell phones (and cell phone towers) use low-powered radiofrequency (RF) energy, a type of non-ionizing radiation. Non-ionizing radiation is not able to break the chemical bonds in your body.

What element is used in smartphones? ›

Potassium, an element in Orthoclase, is used in the touchscreen glass of mobile phones....

Is quantum technology real? ›

Quantum computing is a rapidly-emerging technology that harnesses the laws of quantum mechanics to solve problems too complex for classical computers. Today, IBM Quantum makes real quantum hardware -- a tool scientists only began to imagine three decades ago -- available to hundreds of thousands of developers.

What common technologies use quantum science? ›

Quantum applications today
  • MRI scanners for medical imaging.
  • Lasers.
  • Solar cells.
  • Electron microscopes.
  • Atomic clocks used for GPS.

What is the benefit of smartphone? ›

It has paved the way for SMS, text messages, calls, video chat, and applications that allow individuals to connect with others around the world instantly. They fit easily into your pocket or bag. Moreover, they don't weigh much. There are inexpensive models available for those with a limited budget.

What are the most important features of a smartphone? ›

5 must-have features to look for in an affordable smartphone
  • Speed and storage capacity. Processing speed can make the difference between a happy employee and a frustrated one. ...
  • An expansive display. ...
  • A versatile camera. ...
  • Built-in security. ...
  • Maximum mobility with 5G.
20 Sept 2022


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