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Oct 262011

If you had witnessed Samsung and Google’s official unveiling event of their new baby–the GALAXY Nexus running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich–you would know that the flagship reference phone has enviable software features and hardware specs.  But, why on earth, sky, and sea does the GALAXY Nexus carry in its innards an instrument for reading atmospheric pressure?

You’ve heard of gyroscopes, accelerometers, compasses, light sensors, and proximity sensors making their way into the internals of many high-end Android devices.  But, a barometer?  The GALAXY Nexus has one (as does the Motorola XOOM), and yes, it is used chiefly to read atmospheric pressure–but that is not its main purpose.

Faster GPS Lock-ons

While barometers are usually used as instruments for forecasting weather, the GALAXY Nexus uses one to speed up lock-ons to the Global Positioning System (GPS).  Google engineer Dan Morrill explains that for an Android device to lock on to GPS, the device has to consider the device’s longitude, latitude, altitude, and time.  Normally, the whole process can take several minutes.

But, with assisted GPS (aGPS), the processing gets quicker by pinpointing the device’s rough coordinates (longitude and latitude) with the help of the carrier’s or network’s cell-towers.  The barometer’s role becomes more crucial and relevant in this case because it “gives you a reasonable first-cut estimate for altitude,” says Morrill.  Thus, the GPS lock-on time considerably drops.

In short, the barometer’s presence in the GALAXY Nexus is primarily for purposes of navigation and faster detection of the device’s location.  But, will the barometer’s use end there?

Weather Forecasts

A decrease in atmospheric pressure usually signals upcoming rain, and rising atmospheric pressure usually forebodes good weather (clear sky, sunshine).  So, with a barometer in the GALAXY Nexus, the device can practically be useful for weather forecasts.  Morrill, though, is unsure whether the weather instrument in the GALAXY Nexus is “weather-grade.”

But, let’s suppose that it is so.  If so, the GALAXY Nexus, the Motorola XOOM, the Sony Ericsson Xperia active, the Samsung GALAXY Note, and other upcoming Android phones that include the pressure-reading instrument can be used for more precise weather forecasts in specific geographic locales.

Clouds and Crowds

If distributed computing could help scientists at Stanford University understand protein folding, unfolding, or misfolding through the Folding@home project, the same concept could be used for more precise weather readings through distributed barometers across the thousands of Android smartphones and Android tablets in any given city or locality.

In such a case, rather than relying on data from weather stations distributed across a geographic area, a weather forecasting service or app could gather atmospheric pressure data from barometer-equipped Android devices.  You could think of it as crowdsourced weather forecasting.

Incidentally, an app already makes use of such idea.  The Android app called pressureNET, just recently published on the Android Market, gathers user-contributed barometric readings and displays the information on a Google map.  For now, though, only Motorola XOOM users can upload pressure readings to pressureNET’s servers.

The Future of Barometers in Android Devices

A barometer in an Android device opens up a lot of possibilities.  Developers of game apps and augmented reality apps, for instance, could use altitude sensing for new or better app features.  But, for now, the barometer in the GALAXY Nexus is primarily for GPS lock-ons and navigation.  Let’s wait and see what creative innovations developers can come up with once Google releases Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

Feature image uses photo from Wikimedia; other images courtesy of Flickr users Ben Sutherland and Aaron Parecki

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