Open source "tricorders": handheld sensor packages for everyone

For the past five years, Peter Jansen, a Canadian scientist whose PhD is in neural computation and cognitive modelling, has been developing a series of open source hardware "tricorders" -- handheld sensor packages running GNU/Linux that can be used by everyday people to make and record observations about the world around them. There are several versions of the tricorder, some with sensors attached (atmospheric, electromagnetic, spatial), others that are "blank," with places to mount your own sensors. The latest version, the Mark IV, is still in development, and is intended to be mass-produced at low cost.

The Tricorder project emphasizes accessibility. The devices we build are meant to be as inexpensive as possible, so folks might have access to them without having to worry about the cost, or their difficulty of use. My hope is that someday every household — and every child who wants one — might have access to a small device that can easily be kept close in a pocket or bag, and quickly pulled out when curiosity strikes. By turning a walk home through the park into a nature walk, and Dad's spring time home repairs into a lesson about heat flow, it's my hope that everyday experiences will become opportunities to learn and develop an intuitive understanding and deep fluency with the science of our everyday world.

It is my deep belief that knowledge brings about positive change. It's possible that the same instrument that can show a child how much chlorophyll is in a leaf could also show how them much pollution is in the air around us, or given off by one's car. As an educator and a researcher, I feel that if people could easily discover things about their worlds that were also important social topics, that they would then make positive social choices, like reducing their emissions, or petitioning for cleaner industry in their communities. By having access to general tools, people can learn about leaves, or air, or clouds, or houses — or light, or magnetism, or temperature — or anything the Tricorder can help them see.

Most of all, the Tricorder is designed to discover things that we don't already know. I'm excited about what you can discover with it. And that's what it's about. Little discoveries, everywhere.

the Tricorder project:

(via MeFi)


  1. I really love this concept, but wonder if an open interface to the sensors we already carry with us on our cellphones might get more practical adoption.
    Of course, I’d love to have more sensors on my cell phone while I’m at it.

  2. Yes, this is very cool, but I’d love a sensor pack I could attach to the top of my phone, or a sort of sensor cradle to slot the phone into. It would be fairly easy  to develop a number of android apps to take advantage of it, and with modern phones you’re going to get a lot more processing capacity as well as decent internet connectivity. 

    1. Yeah, an attachable sensor suite, with the ability for people who want to hack on them to make their own…  make it open so that people can compete and innovate…  slave it to blue-tooth probes and fixed sensors like a rain gauge or a temp probe… man the future’s turning out to be pretty cool.

    2. We’re already starting to do something like that at the (open source) educational non-profit I work at.

      Here’s a post I just wrote about a week ago that describes streaming multi-sensor data into your browser from an Arduino through an ethernet cable. Then a few days ago we hacked together a version that can stream the data to your iPad or phone’s browser though Bluetooth. No apps needed, no drivers, nothing.

      The beauty is that, as you say, all the rich processing can be developed in a web page or app.

      Currently our hack that got the data streaming to a phone isn’t scalable, since it requires a fairly-expensive ethernet-to-bluetooth converter, but that’s a problem that should certainly be overcomable with a bit more hacking.

    1.  I was never really crazy about LCARS. Seems like a lot of screen real estate got wasted on pretty curves. I liked the Klingon hexagonal interface better.

  3. I’ve often wondered… what are the three things a tricorder records, and why did they stop at three?

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