Microsoft prepares Windows 10 for panoply of sensors

A unified sensor interface will allow Windows 10 devices to support a slew of new environmental, biometric, proximity and motion sensors

How Microsoft's HoloLens might look in action

How Microsoft's HoloLens might look in action

Windows 10 devices in the future could be measuring temperature, environmental pressure and carbon dioxide levels, as Microsoft provides an interface to support a wide range of sensors.

Microsoft is building a unified sensor interface and universal driver for Windows 10 that will support a slew of environmental, biometric, proximity, health and motion sensors, the company said last week at the WinHEC trade show in Shenzhen. Microsoft is also providing the building blocks for Windows 10 to support sensors that haven't yet been released.

With support for more sensors, Microsoft hopes to bring "new functionality" to PCs, smartphones, tablets, gadgets and electronics running Windows 10, according to a slide from a presentation.

Microsoft is putting Windows 10 -- which is due for release later this year -- in PCs, tablets, smartphones, smart devices, wearables, gadgets and Internet of things devices. The company has also shown the future-looking HoloLens holographic headset working with Windows 10; together, the OS and the headset could act as a launchpad for new sensor applications.

Device makers could add barometer, pollution, ultraviolet, temperature, altitude and other sensors to Windows 10 devices. Also through the drivers, motion detection sensors will be able to track activities such as the number of steps users take in a day, and exchange data easily with other Windows 10 devices. The motion detection sensors will also take into account where devices are -- on pockets, in hand or in bag -- to ensure accurate measurements.

Microsoft is also using sensors to improve the way users interact with Windows 10 devices.

For example, a major attraction of Windows 10 is its ability to automatically switch between tablet and PC modes, which is made possible by sensors in hinges that detect the position of a laptop. Through a feature called Windows Hello, Microsoft is also using sensors to bring biometric authentication to Windows 10 PCs and tablets.

Windows 10 is friendlier to sensors than predecessor operating systems, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard officials said at a press gathering last month.

But sensors need to be identified and supported by the OS, much like other hardware components. The universal driver is designed to let device makers could plug a variety of sensors into Windows 10 devices and not worry about driver development. Microsoft will also provide a separate development kit for those who want to develop independent sensor drivers to expand the functionality of hardware.

Sensors are ubiquitous across devices, and a unified driver interface could aid Microsoft's effort to put Windows 10 in more gadgets, appliances and other data-collecting instruments, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Supporting more sensors in Windows 10 is also a key part of Microsoft's plans to expand into the Internet of Things market, which revolves around data-collecting instruments feeding telemetry to Microsoft's Azure cloud service, McGregor said.

Device makers could put sensors in mobile devices, but some sensors such as temperature and pollution monitors are more likely to go in street lamps or traffic lights. As part of Microsoft's "mobile-first, cloud-first" strategy, data from such sources could be fed to Azure for further analysis, McGregor said.

"You have to be able to support the broadest array of applications, and the sensor data is critical," McGregor said.

Microsoft is trying to unite disparate mobile, PC and embedded Windows operating systems under the Windows 10 umbrella. The company is encouraging the development of Windows-based devices via boards like Raspberry Pi 2 and Qualcomm's DragonBoard 410c, which will be able to run a custom version of Windows 10 called Athens. Makers -- do-it-yourselfers -- have developed sensor-packed robots, drone, health monitors, gadgets and wearables with those boards.

In a separate presentation at WinHEC, Microsoft said it would also bring Windows 10 to its own Sharks Cove and Intel's MinnowBoard Max board, which are used to prototype electronics, appliances and devices with sensors. The devices have low-power ports such as GPIO, SPI, I2C, and UART to which a variety of motion, imaging and other sensors can be attached.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service
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