Tag Archives: pepcom

Wireless charging is less fussy, but still a work in progress

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

One of my goals for CES was to see if wireless charging technology is ready for mainstream consumer adoption. The answer is yes if you’re making contact with a charging pad, but only maybe if you’re not.

Charging pads, of one kind or another, were easy to find at CES. Near field charging – putting a gizmo in direct contact with a wireless charging device – appears to be a maturing technology. Although the Qi standard is gaining – Samsung, LG and Apple support it in some of their models – compatibility is still an issue. There’s no universal solution yet for wirelessly charging your smartphone or wearable device, in the same way that pretty much anything with a wire can plug into a USB outlet. That’s more of an issue for public spaces, though. Consumers can buy what they need to do what they want.

Wireless charging at a distance, though, is more challenging. I saw two companies that claimed to have technology that would allow contactless charging. The most aggressive claim came from Powercast, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company that says its FCC-approved technology can deliver upwards of 100 milliwatts – enough for many wearables, if not for a smartphone – at distances of 1 to 3 feet. Very low power, Internet-of-things devices can be charged up to 80 feet away, according to company staff.

I’m cautious about accepting wireless charging performance claims at face value, mainly because of the second company, Energous. Two years ago, it exhibited a prototype that company executives said would work at distances up to 15 feet. And maybe it would, although I didn’t see them actually do it. It ended up on the scrap heap because the company couldn’t get technical approval from the FCC. It used the same 5 GHz band as WiFi devices, and blasting out multiple watts of radio frequency energy into that spectrum would be sure to interfere with data transmissions.

Energous has backed off from those claims, though. The company recently received FCC approval for technology that also has a 3-foot range. It hasn’t been rolled into a product yet, so there was no demo or prototype on display at CES, but company staff at the show expect that manufacturers will adopt the technology and integrate it into products by the end of the year.

We’ll see.

Comcast ready to build a channel line-up of home automation platforms

by Steve Blum • , ,

The home automation space is a fragmented mix of apps, platforms, gateways and products, not unlike the video content business. Comcast just purchased Stringify, a meta-platform that talks to dozens of other platforms, aggregates hundreds of products and services, and delivers them to a single smartphone app. Not unlike a cable company.

Stringify was my pick for most likely to disrupt the home automation business at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Funded by a $6.3 million seed funding round, led by ARTIS Ventures, it’s ripened to the point where it’s ready for harvest. That’s a good job all around.

The big question will be whether home automation companies will continue to be as friendly to Comcast as they have been to Stringify. Its cloud-to-cloud communication depends on access to application programming interfaces (APIs) that are written and managed by each, individual platform. It’s one thing to support a wonky little app that makes it easier for your customers to do business with you. It’s quite another to feed Comcast’s [suck ’em dry and sell the skins]() approach to revenue maximisation, without also getting a cut of the money. And without some level of comfort that Comcast won’t try to capture their users and shift them to in-house products and platforms.

There’s nothing wrong with Comcast buying Stringify and using it to extend its channel aggregation and bundling business model to home automation. But it only has a right to try, not to succeed. Home automation manufacturers and platforms should take a hard look at how they can benefit from that model right now, and plan ahead.

The cable industry got its start by retransmitting other people’s content for free, a lesson Comcast seems to remember. Both TV stations and cable operators benefited because, in the early days, they weren’t fighting over each others’ revenue streams. But Comcast is already in the home automation space, and its competitors are now also its content suppliers. They’ll have to decide for themselves how to play this new game.

Santa Cruz tech rolls out at CES

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Plantronic’s Esther Yoon demos the Backbeat Fit at CES.

Two Santa Cruz companies were among the thousands of exhibitors at the Consumer Electronics Show, which wrapped up in Las Vegas last weekend – one industry veteran, Plantronics, and one start up, Future Motion, which is just hitting its stride. Both were on hand at Pepcom’s media showcase.

Future Motion introduced the Onewheel+, the latest version of a motorised balance beam skateboard with, naturally, just one wheel. It has two horsepower electric motor and can hit speeds of 19 miles per hour. It’s designed to be easier to ride than version 1.0, and comes with a smart phone app that’ll let you set it up the way you like it – gentle or go for broke.

“It feels like you’re snowboarding on powder”, said CEO Kyle Doerksen. The product has found its audience, he said. Initially, it was uphill work explaining what the Onewheel is all about. Now that it’s out there, people have a point of reference and can understand the features.

CES spotlight on Onewheel+.

Everything except manufacturing – design, sales and marketing, customer – happens at Future Motion’s headquarters in the Wrigley building in Santa Cruz. The product is made in San Jose.

Plantronics showcased two new wireless headsets, the Backbeat Fit and the Backbeat Pro 2. The Pro 2 is a wireless over-the-ears headset – high quality audio with noise cancelling technology, plus mics for phone functionality.

The Fit was designed with Santa Cruz in mind. It’s a flexible, rubbery headset that’s waterproof and designed to stay in your ears even if you a do backflip. Or a flip in some other direction – handy for surfing. The earpieces don’t completely your ear, so if you want wear it while you’re out running, you can still cars and whatever else is around you.

A third local company, Scotts Valley-based Pearl Automation, was also represented. CEO and co-founder Bryson Gardener appeared on a panel, speaking about life hacks for tech-centric families. Pearl makes an aftermarket back up camera for cars.

Simpler hubs evolve as smart home ecosystem gets more complex

by Steve Blum • , , ,

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.

Niche computer maker Purism turns lack of trust into a selling proposition

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Simple security comes at a cost.

If you want to know what every bit on your computer is doing, I mean really know, then you’re the kind of customer that Purism has in mind. The South San Francisco company makes a range of Linux-based laptops and tablets with 100% open source software not-quite-preinstalled. That includes applications of course, but also device drivers, the boot system and everything else.

Not-quite-preinstalled means that the device comes with all the software and a totally naked hard drive. The customer then encrypts the disk with the included open source utility and loads everything up. In theory, that means no back doors or master keys that can be handed over to an interested agency – like maybe the Mounties? – purely for your own protection, of course.

The chips that power the Librem laptops and tablets – Purism uses Intel processors – contain opaque code, but there’s no getting around that. The code in the included software, though, is all open to inspection. “The trust us model doesn’t work in the security market”, explained founder Todd Weaver at Pepcom’s Mobile Focus event last month.

It’s not necessary to load the Linux OS and other software that comes with the devices – you can install whatever you want. Purism is shipping 13-inch and 15-inch laptops now and plans to have 10-inch and 11-inch tablets on the market by September. The components are made in relatively small batches and assembled at Purism’s South City headquarters, which means the Librem devices are relatively expensive, ranging from $599 for the smaller tablet to $1,899 for the bigger laptop. That’s the premium you pay if you want to really know.

Wireless charging is still a contact sport

by Steve Blum • , ,

Closer to reality.

Energous Corporation is walking back claims of wirelessly charging batteries from across the room, but is moving ahead with products that charge on simple contact, without having to plug anything in. That kind of technology is reasonably well established – it’s a common enough demo to see at CES, for example – but the solutions on offer are still fiddly in nature and there’s no generally accepted standard yet.

Last year, at Pepcom’s Mobile Focus event in San Francisco, Energous had a gizmo generally the size and shape of a high end audio speaker on its exhibit table, that a spokesman said could deliver 4 watts of electrical to a suitably equipped device 15 feet away, and 16 watts at five feet. Energous was back at this year’s Mobile Focus with a less aggressive pitch and a different looking power beaming box that was described as a mock-up. It’s still effective up to 15 feet, I was told, but at “trickle charge” power levels. And it’s still not in production, or approved by the FCC, which has to sign off on anything that emits radio frequency radiation, regardless of purpose.

On the other hand, Energous was also showing a (now) FCC-approved contact-based charging device, called the Miniature WattUp, that’s essentially a dongle that you can plug into a USB port and then rest a small rechargeable device on top. So far, no consumer electronics manufacturers have adopted Energous’ technology – contact-based or otherwise – but at least it has a marketable product and reasonable hopes of seeing it in production next year.

The IoT hub is dead and Stringify killed it

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Simple solution for home automation chaos.

Stringify has mixed the glue that will bind home automation and the other gizmos and platforms of the Internet of Things together. Two weeks ago, the Los Gatos, California-based startup launched its server-based and mobile centric meta-platform that allows consumers to control 200 products and services offered by dozens of companies via a single smartphone app.

It’s a brilliantly simple proposition: instead of using a dozen different apps to control a dozen different products, a consumer installs one app that talks to a server that talks to a dozen different servers – cloud to cloud, if you like – and makes them all work together.

Organising a company TGIF was the example demoed at the Pepcom showcase at CES last night. Instead of starting the music, lowering the lights and alerting the crew that the keg has been tapped app by app everytime, you use an intuitive graphical interface on the Stringify app to, well, string it all together so you can trigger your standard party procedure whenever the pressure sensor on the kegerator says we’re go for lift-off.

That’s how it works in theory at least. The key is taking advantage of the APIs (application programming interfaces) published by service providers, including traditional home automation players like Google’s Nest as well as social media platforms like Twitter or web services like Dropbox. Home automation is just one of the many Internet and IoT market segments it addresses.

For now, it’s only available for iOS. Android will have to wait, said CEO Mike Yurochko, while they get it right on the iPhone. That’s both an economic necessity – Stringify is still working off of its $6.3 million seed funding round, led by ARTIS Ventures last April – and appropriate. I’ve taken a hack or two at home automation and struggled with an explosion of apps on my phone. Watching the Stringify demo invoked the same total conceptual shift as going from DOS to the Mac’s GUI did 30 years ago.

Energous technology promises wireless charging at a distance

by Steve Blum • , ,

Big charger with a small beam.

The easiest way to charge a wearable gizmo is to do it while you’re wearing it. Taking off a fitness monitor, say, every night is a fast route to leaving it behind every morning. Energous Corporation has a way to make that happen.

The company demoed its short range wireless charging technology at Pepcom’s Mobile Focus event in San Francisco in May. The idea is to use 5 GHz WiFi transmissions, pinpoint focused by a Bluetooth steering beacon, to charge handheld devices. The two questions that pop to mind are 1. is it safe and 2. will anyone believe it?

The answer to the first question is yes, according to George Holmes, a marketing executive for the company. And he’s probably right, given the low heat levels involved and the fact that, thermal effects aside, there’s no rational basis for believing that radio waves cause any harm to living things. That said, the FCC hasn’t signed off on the technology, from either a safety or interference perspective.

Holmes believes the rational segment of the market is all Energous needs. “There are people who will use this because it’ll make their lives more convenient and some who won’t”, Holmes said. “I’ll never sell to those who won’t”.

The claimed charging capability is pretty robust, ranging from 16 watts at 5 feet away to 4 watts – enough for most mobile devices – at 15 feet. Up to 12 devices can be charged at once. The secret sauce behind the product is the antenna steering technology that can focus power on a small point, and follow it as it moves.

Home automation company faces the and now what hurdle

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Not much new.

Ring – the company formally known as DoorBot – is still keeping it simple and growing slowly. It produces a camera with a motion sensor that attaches to your front door and lets you see who’s there – whether you’re at home or justing looking in from somewhere out on the interwebs via Ring’s Android or iOS app, or a browser. For a fee – $3 per month or $30 for an entire year – it’ll also store six months worth of high definition video.

The latest twist on the product was demoed at Pepcom’s Mobile Focus event in San Francisco last month: a remote doorbell. You plug a second gizmo into a wall socket inside your house, and when someone presses the doorbell button on the camera, it, well, rings. Why not just rely on the doorbell that comes with your house? If your house is like mine, the doorbell rings in the kitchen downstairs, and it’s easy to miss if you’re doing something upstairs. But guess what: that’s not a new problem and doorbell extenders and repeaters are not new products.

So far, Ring has only shipped 48,000 units in the couple of years its been in the market. The challenge for this kind of one trick pony home automation play is to stay relevant as multifunctions systems – think Google’s Nest or Lowes’ Iris – mature and begin to enter the mainstream consumer electronics consciousness. Ring has a roadmap that includes integration with networked door locks like Kevo, but it needs to move faster if it wants to stay in the game.

Billions to be spent replacing Iridium satellites – will the business fly this time?

by Steve Blum • , , ,

A flood of cash was ploughed into building telecommunications systems in the 1990s, with generally bad results for the original investors. Some companies went through bankruptcy, but more or less came out the other side still functioning. Others collapsed completely, with the assets selling at fire sale prices.

The most glorious of those failures had to have been Iridium. Backed by Motorola, it launched a low earth orbit constellation of 66 satellites that were designed to communicate with brick-sized phones from any point on or over the planet. And it worked. I beta tested a unit, taking it to New Zealand where it easily handled a call from the top of Mt. Tongariro, all the way around the world to England. And kept me in touch with day to day business back home, the occasional dropped call notwithstanding.

Shortly thereafter, though, the company imploded and its initial investment of something like $6 billion was wiped out. An entrepreneur bought it out receivership for about $25 million, and has been operating it ever since.

Unlike the fiber networks of the same era, though, the Iridium constellation won’t last forever. It’s approaching the end of its useful life, and the company has to start replacing the birds soon. The plan is to begin launching Thales Alenia Space-built replacements 11 at a time on Space-X Falcon rockets beginning next June. According to a company spokesman, the total cost is in the $3 billion range, with the French government floating the necessary loan.

The difference between then and now is that Iridium claims to have “nearly a million” customers, which translates into actual cash flow. The service isn’t cheap – talk time and data connections cost more than $1 per minute, with speeds of 2.5 Kbps or slower typical – and the U.S. military accounts for about a quarter of total revenue. That’s a slow connection, but sufficient for M2M purposes, which is a growth area for the company. Whether that’s enough to pay off the note by 2019 as planned remains to be seen, though.