The Next Frontier for Smartphones: Telling You When Your Breath Stinks

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 7 2013 1:15 PM

Siri, How Bad Is My Breath?

iphone detect bad breath
The smartphones of the future may be able to tell you when you have bad breath.

Matt Valentine / Shutterstock.com

Your smartphone can see, hear, and feel. The next frontier could be smell. 

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.

We've long had devices that specialize in detecting specific chemicals or compounds in the air, from breathalyzers to smoke alarms. But Sam Khamis, founder of a startup called Adamant Technologies, thinks he has come up with something far more powerful: an array of sensors that together could potentially detect anything from halitosis to blood glucose levels to an impending electrical fire. The goal: a device that hooks up to your smartphone, turning it into a personal health monitor. 

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We aren't there yet, but Khamis believes the technology isn't far off. As with the human sense of smell, his system would depend on two main components: the sensor array, or “nose,” and the software for interpreting the sensory data, or “brain.” He has four developers at Adamant’s South San Francisco office working on the brain, and a team of eight engineers in Austin working on the chips that will constitute the nose. His hope is to have a working product within a year or two. So far he has one very big name backing the idea: venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who pumped $2.5 million into the project last summer.

A Business Insider post on Adamant focused on the possibility of an iPhone app that could tell you when you have bad breath. Khamis told me that’s one good example of the type of consumer-oriented applications he’s aiming for in the short term. Others include apps that could monitor the effects of your diet or exercise on your metabolism. At first, these apps would require a plug-in device that might cost on the order of $100. But Khamis told me his long-term goal is bigger: in short, a digitized, superhuman sense of smell that could someday be integrated into the phone itself.

“Accelerometers, cellphone cameras—they all started out as an attachment, a connected device,” Khamis said. “Now you have accelerometers in every phone, and cellphone cameras are better than some handheld cameras. I’m hoping we can sort of track onto that adoption curve” over the next five to seven years.

Khamis hit on the idea by accident. As a doctoral student in nanoscale physics at the University of Pennsylvania, he was working on a device to study fundamental properties of nanoscale systems when he realized it made an excellent sensor. While others have developed arrays in which each sensor attempts works to pick out a different chemical, Khamis says each of his sensors can detect a wide range of chemicals, so that they can work in concert to produce a sophisticated map of the smells in the air.

The remaining challenges, he said, are fitting the sensor array into a compact, easy-to-use form, and then getting people to actually use it. Other companies, such as BodyMedia and Basis, have developed armbands that can monitor things like heart rate and sleep patterns, but people have to remember to wear them. Adamant’s device would likely face the same hurdle—but if it succeeds, watch out. “Once you have a platform that can generically detect any chemical it encounters, there’s almost no limit to what you can do,” Khamis said. “It could be life-changing.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.