On a conference table in a San Francisco hotel rests five wifi-based sensors, weighing anywhere from a few ounces to several pounds, that their creators say will deliver more accurate and useful data about our environment, from the energy we use to the noise and pollution levels of our surroundings. The display was part of a show-and-tell by Intel, which is betting on a future in which we could not only need, but want, sensors to live healthier lives.

The sensor technology is coming out of an Intel lab, which is not only engineering devices but also the software for analyzing and visualizing the big data sets that the devices will amass daily. Intel researchers work on both the technology that the company uses to make chips and related technology that could help companies sell more chips. But exactly how Intel might make money from its research depends on the types of investors and customers it attracts.

Environmental sensors aren’t a new idea, so Intel’s goal is to come up with better, cheaper and more easily deployed versions that could be part of a movement to create the future of the so-called smart city. The smart city is about the use of technology to help people use and manage resources – from water and power to transportation and communication systems – much more efficiently. It’s a subject that GigaOm Pro has explored, and it recently published a report called “Key technologies for the future of the smart city” (subscription required).

Concerns for the health of the urban environment will only grow as populations increase and more people are packed into cities, which are responsible for most of the world’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The number of mega cities – defined as those with more than 10 million residents – is set to rise from 22 in 2010 to maybe 60 or even over 100 by 2050, according to the World Energy Council.

“Small is better” is the ideal in many cases when it comes to improving sensor technology. Terry O’Shea, senior engineer at Intel’s Energy and Sustainability Lab, says some existing sensors, such as those that measure air quality, are bulky and sit on the top of tall buildings because there isn’t much room on the streets to put them. But, on the other hand, those rooftop locations aren’t a good place to take stock of pollution levels that have a greater impact on humans.

“Buildings are like great canals and wind funnels through canals and gets trapped in alley ways. Pollution is trapped there, where residents open their windows,” O’Shea says.

Here are the five sensors O’Shea showed off:

1). Motion sensor: The battery-powered black box measures vibrations from all kinds of sources, from earthquakes to autos to foot traffic. Data from the sensor can help city planners and building designers minimize frequencies from vibrations that can cause, say, motion sickness at between 3 to 7 hertz. Intel has tested the sensor on an oil rig off the Gulf of Mexico (O’Shea wouldn’t disclose the name of the oil company), where eight sensors were used to check for the stability and safety of the structure. What makes the sensor different from other industrial motion sensors is its use of a combination of accelerator, gyroscope, magnetometer, and gravitometer, O’Shea says.

2). Weather sensor: This gadget gathers information about humidity, wind speed, air pressure and others, and the small package makes it suitable for street-level deployment. This sensor may not be so different from what’s available on the market already, but Intel wants to create one as part of its broader lineup of sensors for a smart city, says Tomm Aldridge, director of the Energy and Sustainable Lab. O’Shea mused that local shops could install the sensor, make the data available to residents in the neighborhood and use that connection with people to advertise its goods and services.

3). Air quality sensor: The L-shape device measures the concentration of particles such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen and detects down to 3-5 parts per million, making it more sensitive than many existing sensors, O’Shea says. The Department of Homeland Security is particularly keen about installing air quality sensors at airports, he adds.

4). Life management sensor: This electronic piece can also be called “marketing sensor” because Intel designed it to gather and broadcast some personal habits that retailers can use to send targeted advertising. It’s been tested at fuel stations in Brazil where stations can read cars equipped with tags that show when the car last received tire rotation and other types of tune-ups and information such as the car’s fuel economy. The data is embedded in the tags inside the cars, so the station owners don’t own the information, O’Shea says — a design to ease privacy concerns. Given that cars are being increasingly digitized with devices to navigate, entertain, communicate and shop, sensors designed to make it easier to access service can save time and energy. The issue is whether consumers will be getting the information and services they really want.

5). Home energy sensor: Gadgets to monitor a home’s energy consumption isn’t new, and plenty of companies have tried to sell them to consumers, but prices are often too high or the data isn’t sufficient or interesting enough to hold people’s attention for long. Intel’s sensor plugs into a wall socket and reads what each appliance consumes without needing to re-wire the home or plug the appliance into the sensor. Energy is emitted as frequency and each appliance, because of how it uses the energy to power its various components, creates what O’Shea called “jitters” within the frequency that is distinct from one type of appliance to another. Intel has put the sensors in 15 homes in the western U.S. and plans to do a wider field trial with 50 homes through Pecan Street project in Austin. The chipmaker also plans to do a field trial in Europe later.

BY Ucilia Wang