Sensors shake up gadgets

A tiny motion sensor is the latest go-go accessory in Gadget Land.

— -- Entrepreneur James Park's new gizmo can monitor sleep habits and daily exercise, automatically.

The $99 Fitbit Tracker, coming in January, is a small device that knows both how many calories you burned and how long it took you to fall asleep. How does Fitbit accomplish all of this? With a tiny motion sensor, called an accelerometer.

The little tech add-on, which costs manufacturers all of about $1, has become the latest go-go accessory in Gadget Land, popularized by Nintendo's Wii gaming console and Apple's iPhone. Accelerometers are basically chips for devices that measure acceleration and gravity forces. Tech firms can buy the chips from industrial supply vendors.

An accelerometer on Olympus' new $299 1050 Stylus SW lets you view pictures you've just taken by tapping the back of the camera. Similarly, you can shake Apple's new iPod Nano to advance to the next song. Or wear the Fitbit to learn that you stopped tossing and turning shortly after midnight.

"With an accelerometer, motion is much more precise," Fitbit CEO Park says. "A pedometer, for instance, uses mechanical mechanisms for counting steps. It can convert steps into calories, but it doesn't take movement into account."

Accelerometers have been around for a while, in airplanes and autos. They are also used in laptops, where they help prevent failure of the hard drive. They warn the drive, in effect, that the computer is about to be dropped and temporarily put it to sleep to save the data.

Charles Hitchcock, a New Hampshire-based product designer, has spent years making devices that connect to musical instruments for recording and mixing music. Cowbell Plus is his first with an accelerometer. Created for the iPhone and iPod Touch, it's a way to tap along to iTunes music with virtual cowbells, tambourines and hand claps.

"Suddenly, there's this whole new form of motion to capture and have fun with, a new way people can be expressive," says Hitchcock, co-founder of Frontier Design Group.

In Barcelona, Xavier Carrillo Costa, CEO of game designer Digital Legends, just put the finishing touches on his first iPhone game, Kroll, which went on sale Tuesday at iTunes for $7.99.

Game designers have been having a field day making use of the accelerometer for the iPhone and iPod Touch to show off new forms of game play. The iPhone doesn't have any buttons: It's all about the touch-screen and tilting or shaking the phone for movement.

To move Costa's hero, you touch the screen and shake the phone to attack the enemy.

"It's a new way of controlling for the player," Costa says. "The accelerometer allows you to move the device without disrupting your attention."

In Japan, many phones already have accelerometers, says Daiki Yasumoto, a Japan-based engineer for camera maker Olympus. He says the technology is a natural to add to any product in the future with remote controls.

"Remotes are getting more complicated, and the accelerometer could make them easier to use," he says.

Restaurants in a shake

Of the 5,000 applications available for the iPhone and iPod Touch, Urbanspoon is one that has received much attention for its novel use of accelerometers.

The free program helps you find local restaurants via a fun, slot machine-like wheel that stops on a name of a nearby eatery.

Developer Ethan Lowry came up with the idea while walking in Seattle with friends and wondering aloud, "What can we do to take advantage of the iPhone that's not just another website?"

He and his pals were headed to lunch, and Lowry added, "Wouldn't it be great if you could just shake this phone, and it would tell you where to go?"

After Apple released its SDK — a road map for developing programs for the iPhone — Lowry and his team decided to try to make it happen. Within a few days, they had a working application.

Since Apple began distributing iPhone apps in July, the Urbanspoon application has been picked up by 750,000 users. Even more impressive: Lowry says he's seen 25 million shakes of Urbanspoon on the iPhone — a stat he says he's able to monitor because they come into his servers.

Lowry doesn't make money from Urbanspoon on the iPhone (he hopes to introduce advertising down the line). But it accomplished his goal of getting attention for his ad-supported website of the same name, a guide to local restaurants.

"People are hungry for interfaces that are more natural," Lowry says. "Keyboards on cellphones always feel tacked on and awkward."

With Urbanspoon, thanks to the accelerometer, "You just shake it, and that feels pretty good."

READERS: Give us your wishlist of gadgets that should have accelerometers. What do you want them in and why? Tell us in the comments.