We use our smartphones for everything from navigating and looking up restaurant reviews to sharing selfies and checking email and the weather. Some of us even use them to make phone calls. Turns out we’re barely scratching the surface of what we can do with these tiny yet powerful devices—which pack hundreds of times more computing power than the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Here are 10 amazing examples of how bright minds are putting smartphones to bigger use.
1. Function as a 3D scanner
Software developed by a group at the Institute for Visual Computing at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) allows you to scan a 3D object by moving your smartphone around it. A 3D model appears on the screen, showing you whether you missed anything, and the app can determine the absolute size of the scanned object. You could use this app to capture faces for a three-dimensional portrait or to copy real-world objects for later study or 3D printing.
2. Test for STDs
This smartphone dongle or attachment performs the functions of a lab-based blood test—specifically, an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA)—to test for HIV antibodies and two types of syphilis antibodies. Researchers recently tested it in Rwanda in clinics that work to prevent mother-to-child-transmission and in voluntary counseling and testing centers. With an estimated manufacturing cost of $34 versus the $18,450 typical for ELISA equipment, this device could advance early diagnosis and treatment of these illnesses in developing countries.
3. Give you an instant eyeglass prescription
Smart Vision Labs created the SVOne, a pocket-sized device that measures refractive errors in the eye and displays a digital eyeglass prescription via smart phone. The company founders envision it for use by doctors with multiple offices or limited space and to serve patients who struggle with traditional machinery or have difficulties with mobility. Where it could really shine, though, is in developing countries where millions lack eye care. The World Health Organization reports that some 90 percent of the world’s visually impaired people live in low-income settings with no eye doctors available and that uncorrected refractive errors are the main cause of moderate and severe visual impairment globally.
4. Track your cholesterol
Engineers at Cornell University created the Smartphone Cholesterol Application for Rapid Diagnostics, or smartCARD, to test cholesterol levels. Users clamp the device, similar to a credit card reader, over the phone's camera then place a drop of blood, sweat or saliva on a test strip. Insert the strip into the device and voila, a built-in flash illuminates the strip and an app matches the image's color values and shows results on the phone. Currently, the test measures total cholesterol, but the lab is working on measuring LDL ("bad" cholesterol), HDL ("good" cholesterol) and triglycerides, as well as vitamin D levels. This app might make you re-think that double cheeseburger, eventually.
5. Assess your mental health
Dartmouth University researchers built an Android app that knows the smartphone owner’s state of mind. The app automatically measures sleep duration, number and length of conversations per day, physical activity, locations and time spent there, stress level, eating habits and more—24/7 and without user interaction. Computational method and machine learning algorithms on the phone then assess that data and make higher-level inferences about sleep, sociability, activity, and other behaviors. When 48 students carried phones with the app during a 10-week term, the data significantly correlated with their mental health and academic performance. The app potentially could be used to provide real-time feedback on campus safety and stress levels, identify students at risk, and assess the quality of teaching. It could also be used to monitor mental health, trigger intervention, and improve productivity in the workplace as well.
6. Help keep you sober
The Addiction-Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System smartphone app, designed for patients with alcohol use disorder, provides audio-guided relaxation and sounds an alert if individuals stray near a high-risk location, such as a bar they previously frequented. Patients leaving residential treatment who used the app reported an average of 1.37 fewer risky drinking days—meaning more than four standard drinks for men and three for women in a two-hour period—than those not using the app. Patients using the app also were more likely to consistently abstain from alcohol.
7. Pilot your drone
An autonomous drone designed at the Vienna University of Technology navigates using the computing power in your smartphone. Drones are typically steered by humans or signals from an earthbound computer, but this one can negotiate completely on its own without external computer input. The smartphone camera provides visual data and its processor acts as the control center, coded in an app. The designers envision a number of possible uses: the device could be sent into a burning building to look around before firefighters enter, guide people in large and confusing areas, or inexpensively monitor illegal foresting. Don’t tell the paparazzi.
8. Pinpoint where gunshots originated
A team at Vanderbilt University's Institute of Software Integrated Systems turned an Android smartphone into a simple shooter location system. The Department of Defense has sophisticated, expensive sniper location systems that use dedicated sensor arrays to pick up on a firearm’s sonic signature. The smartphone version uses external sensors, about the size of a deck of cards, containing microphones and a processor that detects a gunshot’s acoustic signature and exact time. The processor sends that information to the smartphone, which transmits it to other modules and uses triangulation to pinpoint the origin of the gunshot. The system needs several participants, making it best suited for security teams or similar groups, such as SWAT officers...or lost hunters.
9. Alert you that the milk is spoiled
Researchers at MIT developed sensors that can be read by a smartphone to detect ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, cyclohexanone, and other gases. In the future, it could be used to monitor public spaces for explosives and other harmful chemicals, identify environmental pollutants, or detect food spoilage in warehouses. The sensors also could be used in "smart packaging" that detects spoilage or contamination in the foods you buy. Your next phone message could be from that old milk carton in the refrigerator.
10. Improve your hearing aid
This smartphone app could help improve the quality of life of people who use hearing assistive devices, including hearing aids, cochlear implants, and personal sound amplifiers. To remain small and low-cost, these devices typically use not-so-powerful processors. Smartphones, on the other hand, have powerful processors, large memories, microphones, speakers, wireless technology and long-lasting batteries, which can improve the performance of hearing assistive devices. For example, a smartphone could run sophisticated algorithms to distinguish background noise signals and enhance speech.