Great Technology. Where’s the Business Value?

Exponential Growth Bar GraphIt’s a familiar story. Some impressive technical development comes up, and the IT industry adopts what politicians will call a “narrative” to try push its adoption – and profit. Two that are in the early stages right now are “Wearables” and “Internet of Things”. I’m already seeing some outlandish market size estimates for both, and wondering how these map back to useful applications that people will pay for.

“Internet of Things” is predicated on an assumption that with low cost sensors and internet connected microcomputers embedded in the world around us, the volume of data thrown onto the Internet will necessitate a ready market needing to consume large gobs of hardware, software and services. One approach to try to rationalise this is to spot where there are inefficiencies in a value chain exist, and to see where technology will help remove them.

One of my sons friends runs a company that has been distributing sensors of all sorts for over 10 years. Thinking there may be an opportunity to build a business on top of a network of these things, I asked him what sort of applications his products were put to. It appears to be down to networks of flows in various utilities and environmental assets (water, gas, rivers, traffic) or in industrial process manufacturing. Add some applications of low power bluetooth beacons, then you have some human traffic monitoring in retail environments. I start running out of ideas for potential inefficiencies that these (a) can address and (b) that aren’t already being routinely exploited. One example is in water networks, where fluid flows across a pipe network can help quickly isolate the existence of leaks, markedly improving the supply efficiency. But there are already companies in place that do that and they have the requisite relationships. No gap there apparent.

One post on Gigaom showed some interesting new flexible electronic materials this week. The gotcha with most such materials is the need for batteries, the presence of which restricts the number of potential applications. One set of switches from Swiss company Algra could emit a 2.4GHz radio signal between 6-10 meters using only energy from someone depressing a button; the main extra innovations are that the result is very thin, and have (unlike predecessors) extremely long mechanical lifetimes. No outside power source required. So, just glue your door bells or light switches where you need them, and voila – done forever.

The other material that caught my eye was a flexible image sensor from ISORG (using Plastic Logic licensed technology). They managed to have a material that you could layer on the surface of a display, and which can read the surface of any object placed against it. No camera needed, and with minimal thickness and weight. Something impossible with a standard CMOS imaging scanner, because that needs a minimum distance to focus on the object above it. So, you could effectively have an inbuilt scanner on the surface of your tablet, not only for monochrome pictures, but even fingerprints and objects in close proximity – for contactless gesture control. Hmmm – smart scanning shelves in retail and logistics – now that may give users some vastly improved efficiencies along the way.

The source article is at: http://gigaom.com/2014/04/07/how-thin-flexible-electronics-will-revolutionize-everything-from-user-interfaces-to-packaging/

A whole field is opening up around collecting data from the Onboard Diagnostics Bus that exists in virtually every modern car now, but i’ve yet to explore that in any depth so far. I’ve just noticed a trickle of news articles about Phil Windley’s FUSE project on Kickstarter (here) and some emerging work by Google in the same vein (with the Open Automotive Alliance). Albeit like TVs, vehicle manufacturers have regulatory challenges and/or slow replacement cycles stopping them moving at the same pace as the computer and electronic industries do.

Outside of that, i’m also seeing a procession of potential wearables, from glasses, to watches, to health sensors and to clip-on cameras.

Glasses and Smart Watches in general are another much longer story (will try and do that justice tomorrow), but these are severely limited by the need for battery power in limited space to so much more than their main application – which is simple display of time and pertinent notifications.

Health sensors are pretty well established already. I have a FitBit One on me at all times bar when i’m sleeping. However, it’s main use these days is to map the number of steps I take into an estimated distance I walk daily, which I tap pro-rata into Weight Loss Resources (I know a walk to our nearest paper shop and back is circa 10,000 steps – and 60 mins of moderate speeds – enough to give a good estimate of calories expended). I found the calorie count questionable and the link to MyFitnessPal a source of great frustration for my wife; it routinely swallows her calorie intake and rations out the extra extra calories earnt (for potential increased food consumption) very randomly over 1-3 days. We’ve never been able to correlate it’s behaviour rationally, so we largely ignore that now.

There’s lots of industry speculation around now that Apple’s upcoming iWatch will provide health related sensors, and to send readings into a Passbook-like Health Monitoring application on a users iPhone handset. One such report here. That would probably help my wife, who always appears to suffer a level of anxiety whenever her blood pressure is taken – which worsens her readings (see what happens after 22 days of getting used to taking daily readings – things settle down):

Jane Waring Blood Pressure Readings

I dare say if the reading was always on, she’d soon forget it’s existence and the readings reflect a true reality. In the meantime, there are also feelings that the same Health monitoring application will be able to take readings from other vendors sensors, and that Apple are trying to build an ecosystem of personal health devices that can interface to it’s iPhone based “hub” – and potentially from there onto Internet based health services. We can but wait until Apple are ready to admit it (or not!) at upcoming product announcement events this year.

The main other wearables today are cameras. I’ve seen some statistics on the effect of Police Officers wearing these in the USA:

US Police Officer with Camera

One of my youngest sons friends is a serving Police Officer here, and tells us that wearing of cameras in his police force is encouraged but optional. That said, he said most officers are big fans of using them. When turned off, they have a moving 30 second video buffer, so when first switched on, they have a record of what happened up to 30 seconds before that switch was applied. Similarly, when turned off, they continue filming for a further 30 seconds before returning to their looping state.

Perhaps surprising, he says that his interactions are such that he’s inclined to use less force even though, if you saw footage, you’d be amazed at his self restraint. In the USA, Police report that when people they’re engaging know they’re being filmed/recorded, they are far more inclined to behave themselves and not to try to spin “he said that, I said that” yarns.

There are all sorts of privacy implications if everyone starts wearing such devices, and they are getting increasingly smaller. Muvi cameras as one example, able to record 70-90 minutes of hi res video from their 55mm tall, clip attached enclosure. Someone was recently prosecuted in Seattle for leaving one of these lens-up on a path between buildings frequented by female employees at his company campus (and no, I didn’t see any footage – just news of his arrest!).

We’re moving away from what we thought was going to be a big brother world – but to one where such cameras use is “democratised” across the whole population.

Muvi Camcorder

 

I don’t think anyone has really comprehended the full effect of this upcoming ubiquity, but I suspect that a norm will be to expect that the presence of a working camera to be indicated vividly. I wonder how long it will take for that to become a new normal – and if there are other business efficiencies that their use – and that of other “Internet of Things” sensors in general – can lay before us all.

That said, I suspect industry estimates for “Internet of Things” revenues, as they stand today, along with a lack of perceived “must have this” applications, make them feel hopelessly optimistic to me.

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