The Internet of Things withers – while HealthKit ratchets along

FDA Approved Logo

I sometimes shudder at the estimates, as once outlined by executives at Cisco, that reckons the market for “Internet of Things” – communicating sensors embedded everywhere – would be likely be a $19 trillion market. A market is normally people willing to invest to make money, save money, to improve convenience or reduce waste. Or a mix. I then look at various analysts reports where they size both the future – and the current market size. I really can’t work out how they arrive at today’s estimated monetary amounts, let alone do the leap of faith into the future stellar revenue numbers. Just like IBM with their alleged ‘Cloud’ volumes, it’s difficult to make out what current products are stuffed inside the current alleged volumes.

One of my sons friends is a Sales Director for a distributor of sensors. There appear good use cases in Utility networks, such as monitoring water or gas flow and to estimate where leaks are appearing, and their loss dimensions. This is apparently already well served. As are industrial applications, based on pneumatics, fluid flow and hook ups to SCADA equipment. A bit of RFID so stock movements can be automatically checked through their distribution process. Outside of these, there are the 3 usual consumer areas; that of cars, health and home equipment control – the very three areas that both Apple and Google appear to be focussed on.

To which you can probably add Low Power Bluetooth Beacons, which will allow a phone handset to know it’s precise location, even where GPS co-ordinates are not available (inside shopping centres as an example). If you’re in an open field with sight of the horizon around you in all directions, circa 14 GPS satellites should be “visible”; if your handset sees two of them, it can suss your x and y co-ordinates to a meter or so. If it sees 3 satellites, that’s normally enough to calculate your x, y and z co-ordinates – ie: geographic location and height above sea level. If it can only see 1 or none, it needs another clue. Hence a super secret rollout where vendors are offering these LEB beacons and can trade the translation from their individual identifiers to their exact location.

In Apple’s case, Apple Passbook Loyalty Cards and Boarding Passes are already getting triggered with an icon on the iOS 8 home screen when you’re adjacent to a Starbucks outlet or Virgin Atlantic Check-in desk; one icon press, and your payment card or boarding pass is there for you already. I dare say the same functionality is appearing in Google Now on Android; it can already suss when I get out of my car and start to walk, and keeps a note of my parking location – so I can ask it to navigate me back precisely. It’s also started to tell me what web sites people look at when they are in the same restaurant that i’m sitting in (normally the web site or menu of the restaurant itself).

We’re in a lull between Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, and next weeks equivalent Google I/O developer event, where Googles version of Health and HomeKit may well appear. Maybe further developments to link your cars Engine Control Unit to the Internet as well (currently better engaged by Phil Windley’s FUSE project). Apple appear to have done a stick and twist on connecting an iPhone to a cars audio system only, where the cars electronics use Blackberry’s QNX embedded Linux software; Android implementations from Google are more ambitious but (given long car model cycle times) likely to take longer to hit volume deployments. Unless we get an unexpected announcement at Google I/O next week.

My one surprise is that my previous blog post on Apples HomeKit got an order of magnitude more readers than my two posts on the Health app and the HealthKit API (posts here and here). I’d never expected that using your iPhone as a universal, voice controlled home lock/light/door remote would be so interesting to people. I also hear that Nest (now a Google subsidiary) are about to formally announce shipment of their 500,000th room temperature control. Not sure about their Smoke Alarm volumes to date though.

That apart, I noticed today that the US Food and Drug Administration had, in March, issued some clarifications on what type of mobile connected devices would not warrant regulatory classification as a medical device in the USA. They were:

  1. Mobile apps for providers that help track or manage patient immunizations by assessing the need for immunization, consent form, and immunization lot number

  2. Mobile apps that provide drug-drug interactions and relevant safety information (side effects, drug interactions, active ingredient) as a report based on demographic data (age, gender), clinical information (current diagnosis), and current medications

  3. Mobile apps that enable, during an encounter, a health care provider to access their patient’s personal health record (health information) that is either hosted on a web-based or other platform

So, it looks like Apple Health application and their HealthKit API have already skipped past the need for regulatory approvals there already. The only thing i’ve not managed to suss is how they measure blood pressure and glucose levels on a wearable device without being invasive. I’ve seen someone mention that a hi res camera is normally sufficient to detect pulse rates by seeing image changes on a picture of a patients wrist. I’ve also seen an inference that suitably equipped glasses can suss basic blood composition looking at what is exposed visibly in the iris of an eye. But if Apple’s iWatch – as commonly rumoured – can detect Glucose levels for Diabetes patients, i’m still agonising how they’d do it. Short of eating or attaching another (probably disposable) Low Energy Bluetooth sensor for the phone handset to collect data from.

That looks like it’ll be Q4 before we’ll all know the story. All I know right now is that Apple produce an iWatch, and indeed return the iPhone design to being more rounded like the 3S was, that my wife will expect me to be in the queue on release date to buy them both for her.

A first look at Apple HomeKit

Apple HomeKit Logo

Today’s video from Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference viewing concerned HomeKit, which is the integration platform to control household appliances from your iPhone. Apple have defined a common set of Accessory Profiles, which are configured into a Home > Zone > Room hierarchy (you can define several ‘home’ locations, but one of them is normally selected as the primary one). Native devices include:

  • Garage Door Openers (with associated lighting)
  • Lights
  • Door locks
  • Thermostats
  • IP (Internet Protocol) Cameras
  • Switches

Currently, there are a myriad of different per vendor standards to control home automation products, but Apple are providing functionality to enable hardware (or software) bridges between disparate protocols and their own. Once a bridge has been discovered, the iPhone sees all the devices sitting the other side of the bridge as if they were directly connected to the iPhone and using the Apple provided interface protocols.

Every device type has a set of characteristics, such as:

  • Power State
  • Lock State
  • Target State
  • Brightness
  • Model Number
  • Current Temperature
  • etc

When devices are first defined, each has a compulsory “identify me” action. Hence if you’re sitting on the floor, trying to work out which of twelve identical-looking lightbulbs in the room to give an appropriate name, the “identify me” action on the iPhone pick list will result in the matching bulb blinking twice; for a security camera, blinking a colour LED, and so forth.

Each device, it’s room name, zone (like “upstairs”, “back garden”) and home name, plus the common characteristic actions, are encoded and enacted using Siri – Apple’s voice control on the iPhone. “Switch on all downstairs lights”, “Set the room temperature to 20 degrees C” and so forth are spoken into your iPhone handset. That is the default User Interface for the whole Home Automation Setup. The HomeKit resident database is in turn also available for use by vendor specific products via the HomeKit API, should a custom application be desirable.

There are of course extensive security controls to frustrate any attempt for anyone to be able to do “man in the middle” attacks, or to subvert the security of your device connections. For developers, Apple provide a software simulator so that you can test your software against a wide range of device types, even before the hardware is made available to you.

Most of the supporting detail to build compliant devices is found in the MFI (Made for iDevices) Guidelines, which are only available the other side of a license agreement with Apple here. The full WWDC presentation on HomeKit (just under an hour long) is called “Introduction to HomeKit” and present in the list of video sessions from WWDC here.

Overall, very impressive. That’s the home stuff largely queued up, just awaiting news of a bridge I think. Knowing how simple the voice setup is on Android JellyBean for a programmer (voice enabling an app is circa 20 lines of JavaScript), i’m sure a Google equivalent is eminently possible; if Google haven’t done their own API, then a bridge to Apple’s ecosystem (if the licensing allows it) should not be a major endeavour.

So, the only missing thing was talk of iBeacon support. However, that is a different use case. There are already pilots that sense presence of a low energy bluetooth beacon, and bring specific applications onto the lock screen. Examples include the Starbucks payment card app coming forward to make itself immediately available when you’re close to a Starbucks counter, or the Virgin Atlantic app making your boarding card available when you approach the check-in desk at an airport. Both are features of Apple’s PassBook loyalty card app – which is already used by hundreds of retailers, supermarkets and airlines.

The one thing about iBeacon is that you can enable your iPhone 5S to be a low energy beacon in it’s own right. You have full control over this and your presence is not made available to anything but applications on your own iPhone handset – over which, in the final analysis, you have total control. One use case already is pairing your Pebble Smartwatch with your iPhone 5S handset, so that if your phone leaves your immediate location by a specified short distance (say, 2 meters), you’re aggressively told immediately.

So, lots to look forward to in the Autumn. Quite a measured approach compared to the “Internet of Things” which other vendors are hyping with impunity (and quoting staggering revenue numbers which I find difficult to map onto any reality – starting with what folks seem to suggest is even a current huge market size already).

My next piece of homework will be to look at CloudKit, now that Apple are dogfooding it’s use in their own products while releasing it to third party developers. Hopefully, a good sign that Apple are now providing cloud services that match the resilience of competitive offerings for the first time – even if they are specific to Apple’s own platforms. But that’s all the other side of finishing my company’s end of year tax return prep work first!

Watches? Give me a Hearing Aid that knows when to psst… in my ear

iWatch Concept Devices

Speculation is still rife on the nature of Apple’s upcoming iWatch device, the latest of which was speculation of a $1000 price tag or a positioning against Rolex. If it is, I may need quite a bit of advance warning before Jane sends me to collect hers (if indeed Apple release such a device).

Probably the best overview of the watch industry i’ve heard was a Cubed Podcast featuring Bill Geiser, the CEO of MetaWatch, but who previously did work for Fossil and before that for Sony on their email capable watch ranges. If you have a spare hour in a car or train journey, it’s well worth the listen; it’s Episode 11 of the Cubed Podcast, downloadable from iTunes or listen here.

One of the statistics Bill cites is that the watch market is worth circa $1.2Billion per annum, with 85% of this revenue attributable to watches costing more than $500. He is also at pains to point out that they are a very visible fashion accessory, have many variations and focus on doing just one thing well – which is telling the time. A lot of forays into putting more intelligence into them in the past have failed to make a large impact.

Since the time of that Podcast, Pebble have come out with the second iteration of their popular watch (known as the “Pebble Steel“, Samsung have sprung out two attempts at their Samsung Gear, and Motorola (who are in the middle of transitioning ownership from Google to Lenovo) have “pre-announced” their Moto-360 concept device.

The Motorola concept looks impressive (the core competence of high technology companies is normally far removed from consumer-attractive fashionable design). A few samples are as follows (you’ll need to click on these images to blow them up to full size in order to see them animate properly – or alternatively, see all the related demos at https://moto360.motorola.com/):

Moto 360 Speed Reading

 

Moto 360 Set Alarm

The only gotcha is that space constraints usually kill the size of battery you can install in these devices, and the power required to drive the display and supporting electronics – while doing any of these applications – will empty their capacity in minutes. The acceptable norm would be at least a working day. As someone whos found their phone running out of power while trying to navigate myself around unfamiliar streets in Central and West London, this is something of a show stopper. And these Moto 360 concepts appear to be destined for science fiction only, as modern day physics will stop these becoming a reality – yet.

So, at face value, we may need new display technologies, and/or new batteries, and/or moving as much as possible away from the wrist and into powered packaging elsewhere on a person. I’m not sure if you can cast the display (like a TV using Google Chromecast, or using Apple Airplay) over low power Bluetooth, or if there are other charging mechanisms that could feed a decent display using the movement of the user, or daylight.

It’ll be interesting to see what Apple come to market with, but we may all have it wrong and find their device is a set of health sensors coupled with a simple notifications system.

While technologists may think a watch spewing the already compelling “Google Now” type notifications would be impressive, many should be reminded that looking at your watch in a meeting is often a social no-no. It’s a sign that the person doing so is disinterested in the subject of conversation and is keen to move on.

Likewise for the current generation of Google Glass, the devices look dorky and social norms around the presence of sound/picture/video recording have yet to be widely established. Sticking the glasses on top of your head is the one norm if you’re using public conveniences, but usage isn’t wide enough outside San Francisco and various tech conferences yet. And the screen real estate still too small to carry much data.

My Nexus 5 handset has one colour LED on the front that blinks White if i’ve received an email, Blue for a Facebook update, Yellow for a Snapchat and Green for an SMS. Even a service like IFTTT (“If this then that”) sitting in front of a notifications system could give a richer experience to help prioritise what is allowed to interrupt me, or what notifications get stored for review later.

Personally, i’d prefer an intelligent hearing aid type device that could slip the “psst…” into my ear at appropriate times. That would me much more useful to me in meetings and while on the move.

In the interim, the coming wave of intelligent, mobile connected electronics have yet to get evenly distributed across a very, very wide range of fashion accessories of all kinds. From the sound of Google’s work, it sounds like they are aiming at a large number of fashion OEMs – folks primarily fashion providers but who can embed licensed electronics that talk to the hub that is an Internet connected smartphone. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple’s approach will be similar, but allowing such devices to hook into Apple provided app platforms than sit on an iPhone (such as the widely expected HealthBook).

We’ll hopefully have all the answers – and the emergent ecosystems running at full clip – this side of Christmas 2014. Or at last have a good steer following Apple’s WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference) and Google I/O (the Google equivalent) before mid-year, when developers should be let loose getting their software ready for these new (or at least, class of these new) devices.