10 Bizarre Uses For A Mobile Phone

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At Float, we have been speaking and writing about the concept of mobile affordances for several years.

An affordance is the “action potential” of a specific feature of a technology that allows something to be done. For example, the handles on a teacup allow it to be lifted without getting burned.

In recent presentations, we have been speaking about the more than 30 distinct affordances of mobile devices, mostly based on the technologies which are built into mobile phones and tablets. However, there are many more possibilities than these, as innovative designers come up with unusual uses of mobile devices. There is even a Facebook site for “unique users of the mobile phone.” 

Here are 10 unusual uses for mobile that caught my attention:

1. Check Your Breath

Your breath reveals a great deal about you – what you’ve eaten, the state of your health, your blood alcohol level, and whether or not you have certain types of cancer.

The Japanese have been pioneers in this technology, releasing a “halitosis meter” as early as 2007. 

More recently a new breath analysis device called Mint that measures oral health has been released in the US, UK, and Ireland.

And the SniffPhone project, supported by a $6.8-million grant from the European Commission, hopes to have soon an app that provides a diagnosis of numerous diseases with a quick breath test.

2. Play Your Phone as a Musical Instrument

A recent research article on the use of phones as musical instruments summarized developments since the first work that incorporated mobile phones into music performance, the 2001 piece called Dialtones (A Telesymphony).

Since then, developments have included using the audio synthesis capability of mobile phones, the creation of self-contained musical instruments as apps, and the formation of new kinds of musical ensembles solely using mobile devices.

Because most people have a mobile phone with them, it is even possible to get an audience to download an app at a concert and have everyone participate in the performance. An example of this kind of app is Eric Whitacre’s Deep Field App, which is used for audience participation using mobile phones. (While on Eric’s site, check out the amazing Virtual Choir.)

3. Check Your Home for Heat Loss

Infrared cameras have been added to several mobile devices, and are part of the new Tango technology from Google.

One use of infrared is the detection of heat loss by taking pictures of a house or other building from up to 100 feet away. Examples of mobile devices that can now do this are the purpose-built Android thermal camera Therm-App and the rugged Cat S60 smartphone.

4. Monitor Your Baby from Anywhere

We don’t advocate leaving your baby alone at home while you go out barhopping (it’s illegal, of course), but there are plenty of apps that can monitor your baby from a different room, or check on the babysitter to see if they are awake. You can use an old phone as the microphone and camera in the baby’s room, streaming any activity to your smartphone.

A tip from Parents Magazine: “resist the temptation to upload the monitor feed to the Web so you can share it with all your friends and family.”

5. Create Noise to Help You to Sleep

Can’t get to sleep without the familiar sound of an air conditioner? There are several apps for that.

For example, TMSoft’s White Noise app has been endorsed by Dr. Oz and produces several dozen sounds, including Airplane Travel, Cars Passing, Fan, Fire, Tibetan Singing Bowl, Thunder, and, of course, White Noise.

According to Cambridge Sound Management, white noise machines can be used in the workplace for masking distractions or improving the privacy of conversations.

6. Detect Illegal Logging and Poaching

All over the world, illegal logging is destroying vast quantities of forests every year. In Indonesia, a project uses solar-powered smartphones hanging from trees to listen for the sounds of chainsaws to detect illegal logging.

Similarly, a new app called SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) “provides users with information on illegal hunting, telling them what happened and where. Designed to work in tandem with GPS-enabled devices, such as heavy-duty cell phones, it also allows conservation managers to map and follow a ranger’s activities.”

7. Sniff Out Terrorists

In their fight against terrorism, the US Department of Homeland Security is developing an inexpensive sensor that can sniff out chemicals.

The Cell-All project is “an environmental surveillance system that uses a typical cell phone as a platform for a sensor system to detect harmful chemical substances and transmit critical information, including location data, to first responder and other related monitoring agencies.” 

The project is a 2009 spinoff of NASA’s single-walled carbon nanotubes technology for “evaluating planetary atmospheres, detecting chemicals around rocket launch pads, and monitoring the performance of life support systems.”

8. Set Up an Inexpensive Medical Lab

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a cradle and app for the iPhone that turns it into a handheld biosensor. The biosensor uses the phone’s own camera and processor to detect biological molecules or cells, turning the phone into a miniature medical lab.

There are many possible uses for this technology including detecting toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses, and groundwater contamination. The wedge-shaped cradle contains a series of lenses and filters found in much larger and more expensive laboratory devices.

9. Count Calories by Taking Pictures of Your Food

Lose-It! Uses a growing database and image-recognition software to making logging your meals and counting calories much easier. The new version of the app lets users take photos of their food and then estimates the number of calories in the picture. The app uses machine learning algorithms to get more efficient at estimation, as users contribute additional images and calorie data.

This is an app I plan to try, right after the holiday season… 

10. Create Miniature Train Windows for Dolls

There are more unusual uses of mobile phones listed in a 2013 post on the TechRadar blog. These include mobile phones powering satellites, driving cars, and being used as a rifle sight.

But, my favorite is the use of a mobile phone as a train window for dolls. This has to be considered as an early example of virtual reality.

Do you know of other unusual uses of mobile phones? Please add them to the comments below.


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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

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On December 9, 2016
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