Tag Archives: showstoppers

Simpler hubs evolve as smart home ecosystem gets more complex

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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$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

Start ups join identity verification battle

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Cash is king, but kings are increasingly scarce.

There are two ways to look at threats to the electronic payment systems consumers and retailers – online and brick and mortar – rely upon: as an ongoing process of swatting down isolated and rarely successful attacks, or as a full scale war that the good guys are completely capable of losing. Since the holiday mega-crack at Target stores, I’m leaning towards the latter.

The point of sale is a critically weak link. Near term, U.S. retailers and financial institutions need to accelerate the switch to the chip-and-pin system that’s already standard in Europe. Magnetic stripes are laughably easy to counterfeit and there’s no independent and technically secure way to verify identity, particularly for credit cards.

Three possible longer term solutions were on display at CES. Clover makes a POS terminal that tries to solve the problem by 1. leveraging the Android operating system’s built-in security features and 2. providing a platform for retailer-specific apps and third party devices, for example NFC, that can be continually updated. Breaking the payment ecosystem up into more and smaller buckets has the advantage of compartmentalising breaches, but the disadvantage of variable expertise and diligence in implementation.

Two companies offered biometric solutions at the Showstoppers press preview event at CES. Hoyo Labs uses the sensors built into smart phones – primarily forward-facing cameras – to verify identities via an app.

Agnitio is commercialising voice recognition technology originally developed for the U.S. Army. Your identity can be verified either by an app that runs on your phone – the data that defines your voice print never leaves your device – or via a third party server. The profile it creates is based on inherent characteristics of your voice, and doesn’t depend on the way you say a particular word or even the language you speak. It can be tied to a particular pass phrase, though, for another layer of security (although speaking passwords out loud presents other problems).

There’s no shortage of imaginative kit. The war can be won, if consumers, retailers and financial institutions are willing to bear the trouble and cost required.

Smart home business models proliferate despite need to consolidate

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Smart homes need a platform, not a box.

Google’s purchase of Nest, a smart thermostat maker, adds one more contender for king of the home automation business models. The prospect – and it’s only that – of a free, ad-supported smart home web portal is attractive, because the growth of home automation products and services depends on an easy and easily understood selling proposition.

It was clear at CES that the home automation market is still fragmented beyond consumer comprehension. There were plenty of programmable, remotely controllable devices on display, but nothing like consensus on the methods and business models for managing those products. The options included…

  • Retailer’s manufacturer-neutral platforms. Lowes is by far the most prominent example. One on one conversations between shoppers and sales people are the most effective, if not the most efficient, way of educating consumers. If Lowes is successful and consumers understand they can buy devices anywhere and still connect them to the Iris platform, this model has the best chance of going head to head with Google.
  • White label platforms sold to manufacturers who bundle the service with their product. Arrayent is a leading example, with Whirlpool, Chamberlain and Mattel amongst its clients. It claims to have more than 100,000 user accounts, but probably has fewer actual users since accounts come bundled with individual products and a given user might have more than one or ignore automation capabilities completely. For what it’s worth, Whirlpool wasn’t showcasing networked appliances like it did at last year’s CES.
  • White label platforms for security system and home theater dealers. Alarm.com sells through installers and alarm companies and claims 1 million users, spread over three continents. Nice, but the industry doesn’t need a bigger walled garden.
  • Independent hub makers like MiCasaVerde or Nexia. Sorry, requires too much thinking. Great for hobbyists but too geeky for mass market shoppers who don’t care how it’s done.
  • Vertical products. Doorbot, Piper and Goji are just three examples of an endless list of companies that make a product controlled via a stovepiped web service or smart phone app. This approach solves the “just works” problem, but there will be a limit to how many discrete apps consumers will want to juggle.
  • Vertical service providers. Telecoms companies and big security companies like ADT offer the comfort factor of well known brands and existing customer relationships, but familiarity can also breed contempt: low consumer satisfaction ratings for, say, phone or television service will carry over into home automation purchase decisions.

My prediction is that by the time CES rolls around next year, smaller product makers will be largely orbiting the platforms offered by Google, Lowes or telecoms companies, and the bigger manufacturers will be figuring out how to accommodate all three business models. We won’t have a winner, but we can hope the nature of the game will be clear.