An accelerometer is a device that measures proper acceleration, also called the four-acceleration. This is not necessarily the same as the coordinate acceleration (change of velocity of the device in three-dimensional space), but is rather the type of acceleration associated with the phenomenon of weight experienced by a test mass that resides in the frame of reference of the accelerometer device. For an example of where these types of acceleration differ, an accelerometer will measure a value when sitting on the ground, because masses there have weights, even though they do not change velocity. However, an accelerometer in gravitational free fall toward the center of the Earth will measure a value of zero because, even though its speed is increasing, it is in a frame of reference in which it is weightless.
An accelerometer thus measures weight per unit of (test) mass, a quantity of acceleration also known as specific force, or g-force (although it is not a force, and these quantities are badly-named). Another way of stating this is that by measuring weight, an accelerometer measures the acceleration of the free-fall reference frame (inertial reference frame) relative to itself (the accelerometer). This measurable acceleration is not the ordinary acceleration of Newton (in three dimensions), but rather four-acceleration, which is acceleration away from a geodesic path in four-dimensional space-time.
Most accelerometers do not display the value they measure, but supply it to other devices. Real accelerometers also have practical limitations in how quickly they respond to changes in acceleration, and cannot respond to changes above a certain frequency of change.
Single- and multi-axis models of accelerometer are available to detect magnitude and direction of the proper acceleration (or g-force), as a vector quantity, and can be used to sense orientation (because direction of weight changes), coordinate acceleration (so long as it produces g-force or a change in g-force), vibration, shock, and falling (a case where the proper acceleration changes, since it tends toward zero). Micromachined accelerometers are increasingly present in portable electronic devices and video game controllers, to detect the position of the device or provide for game input.
Pairs of accelerometers extended over a region of space can be used to detect differences (gradients) in the proper accelerations of frames of references associated with those points. These devices are called gravity gradiometers, as they measure gradients in the gravitational field. Such pairs of accelerometers in theory may also be able to detect gravitational waves.
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