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Demystifying Tech: Accelerometers

Demystifying Tech is a new weekly series in which TechnoBuffalo’s staff deciphers the cryptic technology terms that are thrown around everyday. By attaining a higher knowledge of the specifications backing the latest gadgets, one is able to make educated decisions and construct substantial opinions about controversial and complex topics.

Today, we’ll be diving into the world of accelerometers, devices that measure the type of acceleration associated with the weight experienced by a test mass that resides in a frame of reference.

How Accelerometers Work

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As previously mentioned, an accelerometer is a device that measures the weight experienced by a mass that resides in a frame of reference. Accelerometers measure proper acceleration as opposed to coordinate acceleration, or the change of velocity of any given device in space.

To help point out the difference between proper acceleration and coordinate acceleration, one must look at the situation from a physics perspective. True accelerometers measure a value when sitting on the ground, mainly because any given object will have a weight, even though it doesn’t change velocity. Conversely, an accelerometer in free fall will measure zero because it is in an inertial frame of reference, in which it is weightless.

An accelerometer measures specific force. This means that an accelerometer must measure the acceleration of a reference frame relative to itself. Most accelerometers do not necessarily display the value that they measure independently, but rather transmit the information to other components. They have practical limitations in how they respond to acceleration and cannot change above a certain frequency.

How Do Smartphones Utilize Accelerometers?

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Accelerometers have been applied to both the aerospace and industrial sectors for many years, but the implementation of the technology has only been introduced to mass consumer markets in recent years. Though many devices before it contained the component, it became particularly prevalent in 2007 with the release of Apple’s iPhone.Many became mesmerized by the idea that simply rotating a device can change a screen’s orientation. It is relatively unknown, however, that accelerometers serve a near-infinite number of purposes within smartphones and gaming systems.

With the further refinement of software development kits for many operating systems, developers were able to utilize accelerometers to program games to intuitively use motion controls. Sony developed the DualShock controller to utilize a six-axis gyroscope that can be used in games like Burnout Paradise and Heavy Rain.

Many portable cameras stabilize their images by giving an accelerometer the ability to hold off snapping the CCD shutter when the camera is moving. Additionally, an accelerometer can be used in an inertial navigation system, determining the direction and speed of the device’s movements.

Interestingly enough, an accelerometer can detect when a device falls, parking the heads of a hard disk, which helps to prevent data loss. More recently, companies have been mass producing accelerometers that integrate gyroscopes, a similar technology that measures coordinate acceleration, allowing for greater precision.

Accelerometers have also become increasingly useful in other fields ranging from medicine to automobiles. Whether it be measuring seismic activity or determining the performance of brake systems, they have become an incredibly integral part of infrastructures everywhere.

What do you think is the most useful application of the technology? Sound off in the comments below.


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Jack McGrath

Rooted in his childhood obsession with dismantling and reassembling gizmos and gadgets around the house, Jack McGrath's knowledge of programming,...Rooted in his childhood obsession with dismantling and reassembling gizmos and gadgets around the house, Jack McGrath's knowledge of programming,...


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