If you fear an Orwellian future in which Big Brother takes the form of technology that watches your every movement, click away from this story. You don't want to read it.
For those of you still here, let's get to the uncomfortable truth: Sensors are all around us, and more are being installed every day.
It's a math, math, math, math world
Some are cheering their arrival. Fantasy football fans, for example. The National Football League has teamed with Zebra Technologies (NASDAQ:ZBRA) to place sensors on players in hopes of making a precise game even more so.
Initially, players will be outfitted with two sensors -- one in each shoulder pad -- known as an RFID tag. The technology uses radio frequencies to send small chunks of data wirelessly to a receiver. Zebra is working with the NFL to place receivers in 17 stadiums outfitted with sophisticated infrastructure for logging and relaying on-the-field data in real-time.
Can you imagine the implications for fantasy football? Roughly 26 million fans spend $1.6 billion a year on the hobby. Adding sensors would amplify the number and variety of stats available, creating more complex games and increasing the need for smart analysis.
Other sensors aren't really sensors at all. Take smartphones. Add software for connecting a bunch of them, and you have what amounts to a ready-made sensor network.
Or at least that's how OpenSignal sees them. The U.K. start-up maps cellular network coverage and performance using data collected from some 9 million smartphone users who've downloaded its app. How much is that worth? According to TechCrunch, Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) likes the idea well enough to have led a $4 million Series A funding round for OpenSignal.
No doubt we'll see more hacked-together networks of the sort OpenSignal is creating. But there's also a real need for embedding fiber optic sensors in industrial equipment.
Unlike radio-frequency tags, fiber optic sensors are immune to electromagnetic interference and don't conduct electricity. That makes them more expensive but also useful for collecting data in dangerous areas, such as oil wells. BCC Research estimates that the market for fiber-optic sensors will grow 4.5% annually to $2.2 billion by 2018.
Yet the biggest opportunity may be in cars. From front-end sensors that trigger a command to pump the brakes when you get too close to the car in front of you, to the fully automated genius of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOGL)(NASDAQ:GOOG) self-driving car, there's a bumper-to-bumper movement to make vehicles more intelligent through the collection and processing of real-time data.
Researcher MarketsandMarkets pegs the market for "passenger car" sensors to grow to $146.51 billion by 2019, with the Asia-Pacific region accounting for $83.3 billion of that total. We're in the fast lane, heading toward a more automated driving experience.
A recipe for innovation
Sound exciting? It should. Automation has led nearly every major productive breakthrough of the last century, from the assembly line to personal computers. Yet if we think about it, sensors offer an even bigger opportunity by telling us what we don't know.
Just like the Big Data systems that pull raw log files from servers connected to the Internet, sensors measure everything they touch. Put the raw information in the hands of a data scientist, and you unearth new problems that we never knew existed -- new problems that need solutions, which, inevitably, points us toward innovations.
Or maybe this all begins and ends with more awesome fantasy football. Either way, it's an interesting time to be connected.
Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Google (A and C class) at the time of publication. Check out Tim's Web home and portfolio holdings, or connect with him on Google+, Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.
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