It started when NASA answered a call for a tool to detect dangerous gases and chemicals with a smartphone. The result became a smartphone-linked device that can do, well, just about anything someone can build a sensor for.
When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put out its request in 2007, NASA Ames Research Center scientist Jing Li already had a sensor that reacted to various gases and compounds — she’d been working on it for space applications, like evaluating atmospheres on other planets.
But to answer the DHS specs, she needed a way for the device to “sniff” the air for samples and a system that would allow it to interface with a smartphone. Li’s team settled on a small fan to gather the air samples, and approached George Yu of Genel Systems Inc., who was able to deliver the cell phone interface system.
Meanwhile, Li convinced the program manager at DHS that the sensor should be attached to the outside of the phone, instead of being built in. “This is a very new technology, and there will be a lot of iterations. Making it interchangeable will make it easier to update,” she explained.
That decision turned out to be game-changing.
Not only did it make easier to update future smartphone chemical sensors, it made it possible to switch out the sensors for ones that perform any of an endless list of other tasks. And it was this innovation that led to the line of interchangeable, smartphone-savvy sensors Yu put out a few years later, after founding Variable Inc. in Chattanooga, Tennessee.