Lensless sensors and smart cities: Here’s looking at you, looking at me, looking at you


Smart cities. The term is everywhere. Across technology media to every vertical from transport to engineering, everyone wants to talk about smart cities. And it’s not hard to see why. When you say the words, you can’t help but find the imagination go into overdrive, building and piecing together exciting scenes from every sci-fi film you have seen, leaving you with an idea a thousand light years from the comparatively dull surroundings you find yourself in. The only problem is that the reality of smart cities is a lot more complex, and like contemporary cities, there are thousands of parts that make up the whole. One of the most interesting technologies that can enable smart cities may be lensless smart sensors (LSS).

What’s LSS?

LSS offers a fundamentally new approach to visual sensing; it shifts the function of traditional optics to computation and eliminates the need for expensive lenses by replacing them with tiny, inexpensive diffractive gratings. Light passing through the diffractive grating is intelligently spread within the sensor to form an unrecognisable, yet information-rich, “blob” that contains the relevant data from the scene. That blob data can then be deciphered analysed and acted upon. Devices using LSS gain the ability to sense changing patterns in the light in its surroundings and gather relevant data guiding its processes. So one of the best ways to describe LSS is as the “eyes of the Internet of Things.” A great video explanation can be found here.

Should I look it in the eyes?

The potential applications for LSS, especially for the cities of the future, are enormous. With LSS, an inanimate building or street becomes more than concrete, glass and furnishings, as it is equipped with intelligent technology capable of understanding the movement, presence and patterns of those present. The resulting data is then analysed – automatically triggering specific systems and functions, such as security, heating, cooling and lighting. You could better control the flow of people by adjusting traffic lights, or by having street lamps alter their light accordingly depending on how many people are in the area.

The notion that your environment will be effectively always watching you is one that has created unease at times when put to the people. Though we already have thousands of CCTV cameras in many major cities around the world following us around, these are relatively covert in that they are passive, and do not influence our environment.

The smart cities of the future will actively morph and react to your presence. One primary benefit of LSS is that they provide more privacy than conventional cameras, but offer far more scene detail and understanding than typical motion sensors. LSS is ideal for sensing deployments in personal locations such as bathrooms and bedrooms, as there is no risk of invasion of privacy due to the blob. Yet, they are fully capable of understanding that motion seen is a person (versus an animal or other object), and reacting accordingly.

So what’s the catch?

The issue now is that large-scale roll out of smart city technologies is still far from fruition. The barriers to deployment are predominately cost, alongside a lack of co-ordination and consensus on what officials actually want to achieve. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just installing LSS across an infrastructure and reaping the benefits; the system governance body needs to determine beforehand what they hope to achieve with the data collected from LSS (and other sensors). The most likely evolution will start with small roll-outs in beta cities. One example is in the U.S., where Columbus, Ohio, alongside six other cities, was chosen to take part in a smart cities challenge. These projects will allow the collection of tangible results, as well as the identification of problems, which will help other cities make the case for implementing their own initiatives. Another likely scenario will be that LSS will begin to be used in the home, followed by the office, eventually progressing to whole cities. This incremental deployment will allow for consumers and implementers alike to get accustomed to the technology, learn the best way to use it, help government bodies sell the idea in to the wider population, and ultimately balance the costs.

Open your eyes

Smart cities are not here yet, but they are beginning to happen around us. The need for imagination is still essential, but for progress to be made it needs to be applied to the technology we have available now, not our futuristic fantasies. LSS will eventually create a physical environment that can sense us, interact with us and adapt to our demands. The decision then will not be how we gather all of the data around us, but what we do with it.

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