A sensor is a device that detects and responds to some type of input from the physical environment. The specific input could be light, heat, motion, moisture, pressure, or any one of a great number of other environmental phenomena. The output is generally a signal that is converted to human-readable display at the sensor location or transmitted electronically over a network for reading or further processing.
Here are a few examples of the many different types of sensors:
In a mercury-based glass thermometer, the input is temperature. The liquid contained expands and contracts in response, causing the level to be higher or lower on the marked gauge, which is human-readable.
An oxygen sensor in a car's emission control system detects the gasoline/oxygen ratio, usually through a chemical reaction that generates a voltage. A computer in the engine reads the voltage and, if the mixture is not optimal, readjusts the balance.
Motion sensors in various systems including home security lights, automatic doors and bathroom fixtures typically send out some type of energy, such as microwaves, ultrasonic waves or light beams and detect when the flow of energy is interrupted by something entering its path.