Rohm shows the Swiss army knife of sensors

Rohm's wearable key device is a prototype built to show manufacturers what they can do with its components

Rohm showed its sensor board packed into a device shaped like a key

Rohm showed its sensor board packed into a device shaped like a key

Need a handy device that can secure your smartphone, measure distances and tell you what kind of sun lotion to wear? No? Well someone built one anyway.

Japanese chip maker Rohm showed a prototype gadget at the Ceatec trade show in Japan this week that crams eight different sensors onto a circuit board about 3 centimeters by 1 cm.

It embedded the board in a chunky plastic key and wrote some Android applications for it, all with the goal of showing gadget makers what they might be able to build with its chips.

The board has an accelerometer, gyroscope, pressure sensor, magnetometer, ambient light sensor, ultraviolet sensor, proximity sensor, and color sensor, along with a Bluetooth Low Energy chip for communication and a micro-controller to manage them all.

Waving the key in the air to draw a letter "U" can unlock a nearby smartphone or tablet that's programmed to work with it. The company didn't give too many details about the security features but it's supposed to provide a kind of secondary authentication.

Point the key at the top of a landmark, like the Eiffel Tower, and an app on your phone will tell you how far away it is. It does this using triangulation, based on the angle of your arm to the ground and the height of the landmark, which it has in a database.

The UV sensor can tell you how strong the sun is, so you know whether to wear factor 8 or factor 50 sun lotion. And the device is also a fitness tracker -- because what device these days isn't. The pressure sensor knows when you're walking up a hill or upstairs, so it can calculate more accurately how many calories you've burned, Rohm says.

The magnetometer can even detect if there are small particles of metal in your food -- in case that's something you worry about.

Some of these things you can already do with a smartphone -- Samsung Electronics introduced a pressure sensor in its Galaxy S4, for instance, and the iPhone 6 now has one. But the Rohm key should be a lot cheaper than a smartphone if any manufacturer decides to make it. A Rohm representative said the board costs just US$1 when bought in volume.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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