Fun fact for today: that little smartphone you carry in your pocket has more processing power than all computers NASA had back in 1969, when they sent Apollo 11 to the moon. Modern smartphones are extremely powerful by yesterday’s standards. Not so long ago, people were content to pay $1795 for a portable machine that weighed 11kg and offered a fraction of iPhone’s power. And what do we do with our personal mainframes? We play Angry Birds, send silly texts, and tweet about the contents of our fridge.
Some hopeless nerds, including me, cry when they think of this wastefulness. Fortunately, there are people who see smartphones as more than gadgets. They write apps that remind us just how much can be done with this little piece of plastic and metal.
To prove my point, I’ve thrown together a small list as seen below. I was looking for original and insightful thinking, and for software that pushes smartphones to the limits. Let me present to you the six most ingenious smartphone apps that I’ve come across.
1) LifeLens by UCSD graduates
This one inspired me to write the article you’re reading. A couple of days ago, a group of graduates from University of Central Florida in Orlando got into the final round of the Imagine Cup 2011 software competition with their LifeLens project. LifeLens utilizes the processing power of modern smartphone, together with the in-built CCD sensor, to check blood samples for malaria parasites. While the app needs a small hardware mod (a pinhead sized magnifying glass you have to attach on top of your regular camera lens), it is definitely one of the best ideas I’ve heard about. Every year 8 million people die from malaria, and a portable, easy to use diagnostic tool might help us reduce this number.
2) Tricorder by Moonblink
After LifeLens, this one might look like a silly trekkie toy, a successor to plastic phasers and crotch tight uniforms – but that would be a terrible understatement. Yes, Tricorder is Sci-Fi inspired, but that’s precisely why it’s incredible.
What can it do? A bit of everything, really. It tells you the strength of your nearby magnetic fields, measures the gravity (or acceleration), checks the ECM disturbance from solar activity, and displays the audio level of your surrounding. It also gives you a handy chart of local wi-fi and cellular signals, as well as some detailed info on visible GPS satellites. We often forget, that every smartphone carries a gyroscope, a magnetometer and various sensors, but this app does a very good job at employing them.
Of course, I can’t think of a good reason to use half of this stuff, but in the end it’s just like the Swiss army knife. You will probably never use most of it, but it’s cool that it’s there.
3) LookTel by Nantworks
Ok, back to the serious, world-changing stuff. LookTel is probably the most awesome assistant software for blind and visually impaired I’ve ever seen. It can read a newspaper or a book, it can tell you the names of the products you’re pointing the phone at, or read album names from your cd covers. When used on the street, it “sees” the names of nearby shops, venues, and reads the signs. Just check this video. Talk about inspired.
I was supposed to put foursquare here. All location-sensitive apps are a great way to use your smartphone, and I wanted to include at least one of them in the list. There’s a lot to choose from: virtual city tours, augmented reality museum guides, treasure hunts, territorial games. We also have foursquare, a rapidly growing geolocation-based social network. But in the end another, very simple app stole my heart – OneBusAway.
So far it only works in Seattle, so you probably won’t be able to check it out. It taps into the GPS data of city buses, and overlays them on city map, so that you always know if a bus is coming, or if you’re late, why you’re better off walking. It also helps tourists, advising them when they should hop off the bus. It’s a very clean, simple idea, that improves on a small portion of everyday life I never thought can be improved. If Google wants to have a next big thing, it should forget “+1″, invest into this concept and prepare a global (or at least a US-wide) version.
5) Lie Detector by Agile
Ok, I admit it. This one is a bit scary, but smart enough to make up for it. “Agile Lie Detector” is basically what it says on a tin. It operates during the phone conversation, and analyzes the voice of a person you’re speaking to. Then, a stress detecting algorithm tries to decide if that person is lying or not. Fortunately, the app is not always correct, and mostly serves as a novelty item. I would strongly suggest not to challenge anyone over its results. But who knows, maybe we only need a bit more processing power and refined algorithms, to turn your mobile into a personal detective.
6) Wikidroyd by OneStepAhead
It’s essentially an offline Wikipedia for your mobile phone. The full english version is a bit chunky, as it takes around 6GB of storage, but trust me – it’s worth it. The feeling that you carry an entire knowledge of humankind in your pocket is something you have to experience. If I could travel back in time with this app… I would have two days’ worth of battery charge to write down some 3,250,000 articles. Or maybe I would need only one? The one that tells you how to build a mobile charger from dung, sticks and clay?
Anyway, if you have a large memory card, please do install this app. The more people have it, the better the chance our collective knowledge will survive some nasty end-of-the-world scenarios. After all, generations born in the post-apocalyptic wasteland deserve to know about Charlie Sheen.