There’s a thriving cottage industry of smartphone extension hardware that plugs into the headphone jack on your phone and extends its capabilities in one way or another — feeding whatever special data it grabs back to an app where you get to parse, poke and prod it. It’s hard to keep track of the cool stuff people are coming up with to augment phones — whether it’s wind meters or light meters or even borescopes. Well, here’s an even more off-the-wall extension: meet DO-RA — a personal dosimeter-radiometer for measuring background radiation.
Granted, this is not something the average person might feel they need. And yet factor in the quantified self/health tracking trend and there is likely a potential market in piquing the interest of quantified selfers curious about how much background radiation they are exposed to every day. Plus there are of course obvious use-cases in specific regions that have suffered major nuclear incidents, like Fukushima or Chernobyl, or for people who work in the nuclear industry. DO-RA’s creators says Japan is going to be a key target market when they go into production. Other targets are the U.S. and Europe. It reckons it will initially be able to ship 1 million DO-RA devices per year into these three markets. The device is due to go into commercial production this autumn.
The Russian startup behind DO-RA, Intersoft Eurasia, claims to have garnered 1,300 pre-orders for the device over the last few months, without doing any dedicated advertising — the majority of pre-orderers are apparently (and incidentally) male iPhone and iPad owners. So it sounds like it’s ticking a fair few folks’ ‘cool gadget’ box already.
The DO-RA device will retail for around $150 — which Intersoft says is its primary disruption, being considerably lower than rival portable dosimeters, typically costing $250-$400. It names its main competitors as devices made by U.S. company Scosche, and Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo. Last year Japan’s Softbank also announced a smartphone with an integrated radiation dosimeter, with the phone made by Sharp. This year, a San Francisco-based startup has also entered the space, with a personal environmental monitoring device, called Lapka (also costing circa $250), so interest in environmental-monitoring devices certainly appears to be on the rise.
DO-RA — which is short for dosimeter-radiometer — was conceived by its Russian creator, Vladimir Elin, after reading articles on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, and stumbling across the idea of a portable dosimeter. A bit more research followed, patents were filed and an international patent was granted on the DO-RA concept in Ukraine, in November last year. Intersoft has made several prototypes since 2011 — and produced multiple apps, for pretty much every mobile and desktop platform going — but is only now gearing up to get the hardware product into market. (Its existing apps are currently running in a dummy simulation mode.)
So what exactly does DO-RA do? The universal design version of the gadget will plug into the audio jack on a smartphone, tablet or laptop and, when used in conjunction with the DO-RA app, will be able to record radiation measurements — using a silicon-based ionizing radiation sensor — to build up a picture of radiation exposure for the mobile owner or at a particular location (if you’re using it with a less portable desktop device).
The system can continuously monitor background radiation levels, when the app is used in radiometer mode (which is presumably going to be the more battery-draining option — albeit the device contains its own battery), taking measurements every four seconds. There’s also a dosimeter mode, where the app measures “an equivalent exposure over the monitoring period” and then forecasts annual exposure based on that snapshot.
The company lists the main functions of the DO-RA mobile device plus app as:
- Measuring the hourly/daily/weekly/monthly/annual equivalent radiation dose received by an owner of a mobile/smart phone;
- Warning on allowable, maximum and unallowable equivalent radiation dose by audible alarms/messages of a mobile/smart phone:”Normal Dose”, “Maximum Dose”, “Unallowable Dose”.
- Development of trends of condition of organs and systems of an owner of a mobile phone subject to received radiation dose;
- Advising an owner of a mobile/smart phone on prevention measures subject to received radiation dose;
- Receiving data (maps of land, water and other objects) on radiation pollution from radiation monitoring centres collected from DO-RA devices;
- Transferring collected data through wireless connection (Bluetooth 4.0) to any electronic devices within 10 meters.
Why does it need to transfer collected data? Because the startup has big data plans: it’s hoping to be able to generate real-time maps showing global background radiation levels based on the data its network of DO-RA users will ultimately be generating. To get the kind of volumes of data required to create serious value they’re also looking to shrink their hardware right down — and stick it inside the phone. On a chip, no less.
The DO-RA.micro design, which aims to integrate the detector into the smartphone’s battery, is apparently “under development” at present. The final step in the startup’s incredible shrinking roadmap is DO-RA.pro in which the radiation-sensing hardware is integrated directly into the SoC. “This advanced design is under negotiations now”, it says.
It will doubtless be an expensive trick to pull off, but if DO-RA’s makers are able to drive their technology inside millions of phones as an embedded sensor that ends up being included as standard they could be sitting atop a gigantic environmental radiation-monitoring data mountain. Still, they are a long way off that ultimate goal. In the meantime they are banking on building out their network via a universal plug-in version of DO-RA, which smartphone owners can use to give their current phone the ability to sniff out radiation.
In addition to the basic universal plug-in, they have created an apple-shaped version, called Yablo-Chups (pictured left), presumably aimed at appealing to the Japanese market (judging by the kawaii design). They are also eyeing the smartwatch space (but then who isn’t?), producing a concept design for an electromagnetic field monitoring watch that warns its owner of “unhealthy frequencies.” It remains to be seen whether that device will ever be more than vaporware.
All these plans are certainly ambitious, so what about funding? Elin founded Intersoft Eurasia in 2011 and has managed to raise around $500,000 to-date, including a $35,000 grant from Russia’s Skolkovo Foundation, which backs technology R&D projects to support the homegrown Tech City/startup hub. In September 2013 Intersoft says it’s expecting to get a more substantial grant from the Foundation — of up to $ 1 million — to supplement its funding as it kicks off commercial production of DO-RA. It also apparently has private investors (whose identity it’s not disclosing at this time) willing to invest a further $250,000.
Even so, DO-RA’s creators say they are still on the look out for additional investment — either “in the nuclear sphere” or a “big net partner to promote DO-RA” in their main target markets. Additional investment is likely required to achieve what Intersoft describes as its “main goal”: producing a microchip with an embedded radiation sensor. That goal suggests that the current craze for hardware plug-ins to extend phone functionality may be somewhat transitionary — if at least some of these additional sensors can (ultimately) be shrunk down and squeezed into the main device, making mobiles smarter than ever right out of the box.
TechCrunch’s Steve O’Hear contributed to this article