Tag Archives: showstoppers

Apple will take augmented reality to the next level today


Reality augmented by instant info.

Augmented reality – AR – will take a big step forward later today when Apple launches iOS version 11. It includes ARkit, which is Apple’s new platform for running augmented reality apps, instantly putting the technology onto more than 300 million devices, as soon as the iOS update is downloaded.

At least, that was the hot gossip yesterday at the Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in San Francisco. It’s always risky to take Apple rumors at face value, but AR companies at the show are taking this one seriously.

Up until now, AR hasn’t gained much traction in the consumer market, Pokemon Go notwithstanding. But it has a growing foothold in industrial and business-to-business markets.

With augmented reality, a smart phone screen or totally geeked up glasses can overlay digital information on the real world. The photo above shows AR glasses displaying port labels for a circuit board as soon as the wearer looks at it. That kind of automatic information speeds up work and reduces errors.

I wrote about Vuzix, a company that makes AR glasses, nearly five years ago. They had great expectations – as did Google with its Glass product – for consumer applications, which were not fulfilled. Since then, they’ve focused on industrial applications and found happiness in vertical markets. One customer they talk about it is Airbus, the European airliner manufacturer. When workers are assembling complex wiring harnesses, the digital overlay on the Vuzix M300 glasses sorts out wires by color and tells them which hole each one needs to go into.

The immediate effect of Apple’s presumed announcement will be to boost the commercial side of the AR business. The cost of adopting the technology will drop to near zero for anyone who already has an iPhone, and the bar won’t be that much higher for someone who just buys one off the shelf. Pure consumer applications will be slower out of the gate, but with an instant market of hundreds of millions of users, it won’t take long to catch up.

FINsix Dart universal power adaptor works great, when it works


From pitch to product, with some bumps in the road.

It’s not often I have the pleasure of actually using a product that’s made it from the fundraising stage all the way to the open market. One of the top finishers at the 2014 Showstoppers LaunchIt beauty pageant, held during the Consumer Electronics Show, was FINsix, which was pitching a small, universal power supply for laptops and phones. It took second place, largely, it seemed, on its personal appeal to the judges who, as I noted at the time, had a “gleam in their eyes as they thought about trading two power bricks for one that’s barely bigger than a plug alone”.

It attracted me too, but remained off limits because my main laptop is a Mac and FINsix doesn’t offer the necessary MagSafe 2 adaptor tip. The key word is offer – as I later discovered, it’s available. Sorta.

While getting ready for a bicycle tour, I slimmed down my electronics load and opted to bring a Lenovo N22 Chromebook instead of the Mac. It’s a light and very rugged device that’s designed to be tossed around by elementary school kids. It comes with a power supply that was bigger than I wanted to carry, so I bought a Dart, which is the FINsix product’s trade name now.

The first one that arrived didn’t have an adaptor tip that fit the N22. I emailed customer service, and they quickly sent me one – it’s not included in the standard kit. That’s when I discovered that my Dart didn’t work at all. It wouldn’t charge anything, and the indicator light on the cord didn’t come on. It was dead and then customer service slowed down. It took a couple of days to get a response, and then a couple of weeks to get a replacement unit – I left on my month long bike tour before it arrived.

When I returned, the unit was waiting for me. It seemed to work – the light came on and it charged my phone. But not the N22.

At that point, customer service sped up again, and a couple of rounds of troubleshooting resulted in the discovery that the tip actually doesn’t work on an N22. At that point, they sent me a MagSafe 2 tip. It’s not a regular product, but it can be kluged together with a “snip tip”, which is a adaptor that can be soldered onto unsupported plugs. That worked perfectly, and now my briefcase is lighter and less cluttered – exactly what was promised three years ago.

My conclusion is that the Dart is a great product concept, but FINsix is having some trouble implementing it. That’s based on a very small sample, though. I might just have been that one unlucky guy. And FINsix did give me a solution that’s better than my original plan, so kudos to them.

Simpler hubs evolve as smart home ecosystem gets more complex


Doesn’t look complicated.

Smart home hubs made a bit of a comeback at CES this year, with several companies showing second generation products. One company, Wink, leaned in to the self install market with a relatively inexpensive new device that’s intended to be simple and seamless to set up, and incorporates lesson learned from its first generation. Another company, Carrier, rebranded an existing hub as “Cor” and leveraged its existing distribution channel to go after the big system sale end of the market.

The Wink Hub 2 was showcased at the Pepcom press event at CES. It has a $99 price tag and is intended to just work, with automatic device pairing and a smart phone app as the sole controller – no buttons on the device, no web interface. To the extent possible, it’s intended to be network and protocol-agnostic. It’ll connect to Wink’s servers, which is where the smart phone app gets a lot of its smarts, via ethernet or WiFi, and talk to devices via Z-Wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth and a couple of proprietary protocols. Security was also upgraded.

Carrier had the Cor on display at the Showstoppers CES media showcase. It’s intended to be the center of a professionally integrated network of devices. It’s compatible with standard Z-Wave products, which is the only wireless protocol it supports. The Cor is also controlled via a smart app with a cloud-based back end. It’s sold and installed by Carrier’s network of dealers. An installed starter kit – with the hub, security and water sensors and light controls – costs in the $700 range. About 1,000 units have been installed since the Cor was launched last summer.

CES was crammed with home automation devices this year. Many are one-trick ponies with separate smart phone apps and/or web interfaces, which will be increasingly cumbersome and confusing as consumers increasingly install the technology in their homes. Third party hubs might have found a winning selling proposition: unified set up and control on a simple app backed up by smart and secure servers.

Cleverpet wins CES Launchit competition with electronic game hub for dogs

An electronic game for dogs won top honors yesterday at the Showstoppers Launchit competition for startups at CES. Cleverpet is basically a canine version of the old Simon game combined with an automated feeding station that dispenses a little bit of food when the dog hits the correct lighted pad. It gives dogs something to do when they’re locked up in an apartment all day while the rest of the family is at work.

“A dog with a job is a happy dog”, said Leo Trottier, Cleverpet’s CEO during his lightning pitch to the judges. “Our user base literally has nothing better to do with their time”.

The plan is to turn the feeding station into a hub, with monitoring capabilities for anxious pet owners and different activities scattered throughout the house, so the dog gets some exercise out of it.

Second place went to Sevenhugs, a French company that produces a universal, location aware remote control. You point it at what you want to operate – a television set or Nest thermostat, say – and it automagically knows what to do. You could even set it up so that if you point it at a window, it’ll give you a weather update.

Coming in third was Bartesian, a Canadian company which aims to become the “Keurig of cocktails”. It looks something like a high tech espresso machine, except there are four reservoirs for liquids. One is for water, the other three for your favorite booze. You then buy the little Keurig-like capsules, which contain all the pre-mixed non-alcoholic ingredients for a fancy cocktail, plop one in and it mixes flawless drinks for you and your guests.

There were a total of 15 companies in the scrum.

Open standards and clear consumer branding will be the cure for CES home automation confusion


The new good housekeeping seal of approval.

There were plenty of home automation hubs at CES, as it turns out. The first home automation products out of the gate, at the pre-show press events, were primarily one-off gizmo-and-app combos, but the usual suspects eventually showed up.

Lowe’s Iris system was prominent in a demo smart home built on the show floor. Nexia had a presence too. Both have a similar business model: sell a hub and support it through a cloud server for $10 per month. Nexia’s rep wouldn’t say how many subscribers it has, but she did say it has 300,000 active devices on its network. Lowe’s rep wouldn’t give any details about number of users, but did say that their average subscriber has 8 connected devices. Put those numbers together, and you get a subscriber range somewhere in the mid-5 figure range for a typical fee-based platform. Not an exact estimate, to be sure, but that’s probably the ball park.

Other hub-centric systems – free and otherwise – were there as well: ADT, Opcom, Insteon, Vera, Wink and the list goes on. Every home automation business model was well represented. The supply side of the product category has exploded, even though the demand side lags far behind.

A mainstream breakout – low 7-figures at the very least – won’t come until there’s a sufficient degree of interoperability. If not a single standard then it’ll require identifiable families of products at the least.

“As the homes get more connected, we’ll see the homes get standardised”, said Ulf Ewaldsson, Chief Technology Officer for Ericsson. Although, he said, that could mean more than one standard.

Coming out of the show, my sense is that vertically integrated systems that rely on proprietary technology won’t make it. Mainstream acceptance for the rest will start with standard-based technology – Z-wave, AllJoyn, and the list goes on. The real winners will emerge when the market begins to focus on a small number of brands.

One hint at the show: the most prevalent home-automation brand was Nest. The Google-owned thermostat company’s logo was prominent on one smart home product booth after another. Compatibility with Nest and, to a lesser extent, Apple’s HomeKit platform, was the method of choice for reassuring consumers that a company’s products are interoperable within a heterogenous system.

Electric vehicle creativity is built around new business models at CES


You wouldn’t mistake it for a McLaren, though.

Connected cars were everywhere at CES this year. A hot looking set of wheels was the platform of choice for showing off cutting edge technology. Plenty was written about it and there’s not much I can add. But very few of those vehicles – only 2 that I saw – were innovations in and of themselves.

Gogoro is an electric scooter that’s built around a swappable battery system. The idea is to set up and run kiosks around cities that have a bank of charging batteries. You ride up to the kiosk, take a few seconds to swap your used battery for one that’s fully charged, and keep on riding. The scooter is intended for densely populated places – San Francisco, for example – or huge mega-cities of 10 million people or more. Range is limited – about 100 km – but that’s plenty for urban transportation, particularly with quick access to topped up batteries. No price was announced, all the company reps would say is that it’ll be targeted to 20-somethings and cost in the same ballpark as a small gas powered scooter. Then you pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to topped batteries.

The Elio is a stranger beast. It’s an orange 3-wheeler – technically a motorcycle – and it runs on a 3-cylinder gasoline engine. At least for now. The business plan calls for first making a cheap gas powered ride – $6,800 is the target – and then waiting for the cost of electric propulsion systems to drop to where it’s possible to maintain that price point. In the meantime, the company has, presumably, built its brand reputation and worked out any mechanical kinks. It’s a way of positioning the company for the electric vehicle space of the future.

Neither vehicle is being sold yet, but reps for both companies said that production would begin later this year.

Enplug wins the Eureka Park pitchfest at CES

A company with an interactively focused digital signage platform was the best of the bunch at this afternoon’s Showstoppers Launch.it competition at CES. Enplug CEO Nanxi Liu was the first of 11 entrepreneurs who gave a 5 minute presentation telling why they should be funded, and then took 3 minutes of questions from a panel of angel investors. At the end, the panel voted LA-based Enplug the winner.

Second and third place went to Israeli companies – VocalZoom and SwitchBee respectively. VocalZoom demoed core noise cancelling technology that’s built around a laser sensor that reads speech off of facial skin vibrations. SwitchBee is a home automation platform built around a proprietary hub and easily-installed light switches.

Enplug offers a platform that allows anyone with a Mac or Windows machine to turn any digital display into interactive digital signage. It was a surprising pick, in a sense: with $3.7 million in angel financing already in the bank and a major display maker – ViewSonic – bundling it with their products, it’s really a bit beyond the angel stage that the competition was targeting. But it also has customers and revenue, which makes it an attractive play.

Other contenders included a noise cancelling earplug from Hush, base IoT technology developed by Carbon Origins, a wrist band from Sunfriend that tracks sun exposure, the Lert.ly personal safety monitor designed for the elderly, a baseball bat swing analyser by Diamond Kinetics, a wristband that holds your password information from Everykey, whole-house mood lighting from LumFi and Smart Wheels, a tiny cross between a skateboard and a Segway.

All are exhibiting at Eureka Park, a growing pavilion of early stage companies and entrepreneurs at CES.

Consumer uptake of IoT tech depends on cutting the power bill

The one thing you can count on an electricity meter to have is, well, electricity. A steady source of (for all practical purposes) unlimited power makes engineering a wide area, low bit rate network easy, and gaining the benefits of real time control a straightforward, relatively low tech proposition.

Other utilities aren’t so lucky. On the whole, it’s not a great idea to pump 120 volts into a gas or water meter, even if it were cost effective. So real time control requires battery power, at least for now. To get smart meter levels of performance out of a battery powered network means developing better technology. On-Ramp Wireless is trying to do that for widely dispersed applications, such as agricultural irrigation, where the basic power problem is compounded by distance.

The company makes 2.4 GHz modules costing $35 to $50 that communicate with access points (in the $15,000 to $20,000 range) up to 20 km away. That allows coverage of an area of approximately 750 square km. The secret sauce is low power technology that conserves battery life while maintain long distance links.

According to a company spokesman, if it’s a simple meter reading job, where data is collected from a single point once a day, it could be 12 years or more between new batteries. More demanding tasks – say, managing and gathering data from 6 or 8 irrigation sensors half a dozen times a day – might require annual battery changes.

Smart meters are the first spread consumer use of Internet of Things technology, made possible by a unique proximity to abundant electricity. But follow on applications have been slow in coming. When power is more or less taken out of the equation – as On-Ramp and others are in the process of doing – expect adoption to accelerate.

Wearables need network neutrality, of a sort, to thrive

Cord cutting is easy if you live in a signal rich environment. Or at least easier – anyone who has experienced the frustration of trying to make a mobile call from an interior room in a central business district hotel knows it isn’t a slam dunk. But once you move out into suburban and rural areas, reliable indoor phone and Internet service usually means keeping the wire. (And yes, I know, fixed wireless is a potential solution, but usually not – at least according to the FCC.

Even where mobile networks provide adequate coverage for outdoor use, reaching people inside homes and businesses becomes problematic has – the company’s founder, Werner Sievers, says – solved that problem for developing world markets. Now, he wants to bring it to the U.S., first for cord cutters but ultimately as fixed infrastructure for wearables.

The basic product consists of two units – one located where it can capture a mobile signal – even as weak as 1 bar or less – and the other positioned for maximum coverage of about 13,000 square feet inside a home or office building. The key hurdle Sievers says they’ve overcome is latency, reducing the delay caused by adding 2 hops and signal processing to the transmission path to 20 microseconds or less.

It’s not cheap. The 3G unit is $575 and the soon-to-be launched LTE version is $700. But it is technology intended for mobile networks, which is an industry that understands trading equipment subsidies for service subscriptions.

Right now, wearables like the Fitbit depend on a smart phone for connectivity and networked processing power – either from the phone itself or via its link to a remote server. For now, it’s a drag on adoption – your choice of wearables depends in the first instance on your choice of smart phone. An alternate, vendor-neutral path, like that provided by Nextivity, will turbocharge adoption and create a new business model for mobile operators and wearable manufacturers to pursue.

Datawind squeezes costs out of bandwidth for developing markets

$80 for a tablet with a year of mobile Internet service included is a powerful selling proposition, particularly in the developing markets that Datawind is targeting. The Canadian company showed its newest tablet – priced at $38 with WiFi connectivity only – at the Showstoppers event at the CTIA show in Las Vegas last month.

Datawind has solved two tough problems: making a cheap and functional tablet and bundling it with even cheaper mobile service in a useful way.

The 7-inch tablet runs Android on a 1.3 GHz dual core processor that costs $3.50. Other components are comparable, resulting in a device that has twice the processing power and memory as the first iPad, according to the company. Plans are to keep squeezing out costs, with a projected price point of $20 next year.

The real secret sauce, though, is a custom-built browser that connects to Datawind’s servers, which compress the bandwidth used down to a relative trickle and also serve out ads that help subsidise data connections in developing countries. That’s what allows the company to include a year’s worth of data service for $42 more. “We do the heavy lifting on the back end”, said Suneet Tuli, Datawind’s CEO.

There are obvious trade offs in performance, but users aren’t restricted to Datawind’s network. Other browsers run fine, and can be used when more robust or inexpensive connectivity is available.

Africa and India – where Tuli says they’ve been the top selling manufacturer since last year – are Datawind’s primary markets, although it also sells products in the developed world too.c