HP has developed an inertial accelerometer that's so sensitive, it can detect a change in the position of its center chip of less than one-billionth the width of a human hair.
The sensor is part of HP's unfortunately named CeNSE (Central Nervous System for the Earth) program, whose aim is to build a "planetwide network" of tiny sensors to measure anything and everything about the environment. It's the first prototype in the CeNSE project, and it's safe to say they're starting off on the right foot:
Hartwell's device is sensitive enough to "feel" a heartbeat. The source of that sensitivity is a 5mm-square, three-layer silicon chip. A portion of the center wafer is suspended between the two outer wafers by flexible silicon beams. When the chip moves, the suspended center lags behind due to its inertia. A measurement of that relative motion is used to calculate the speed, direction and distance the chip has moved.
While the larger CeNSE project may have environmentalist overtones, the first practical application is going to be from oil behemoth Shell. They'd like to use the sensors to detect pockets of oil, allowing them to drill more efficiently. Eventually, HP hopes to move to "city-level" projects that digitally capture what the five senses do—and in some cases, what they can't. And when they finally stuff that sucker in a Wiimote, Super Smash Bros. will never be the same. [HP via Fast Company]