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.
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.
$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.
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.
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.
Blackberry is salvaging something out the wreckage of its mobile phone business, by porting its BBM chat service – formerly Blackberry Messenger – to the iOS and Android platforms. And it’s claiming a fair amount of success. According to a spokesman at this evening’s Showstoppers CES press, Blackberry has doubled its BBM user count – going from 40 to 80 million users worldwide – in the two months or so since it launched its iPhone and Android apps.
In the coming weeks, Blackberry plans to add a Skype-like voice service, where BBM users can talk to each other for free over the Internet. BBM’s selling proposition is that it’s secure – Blackberry still boasts a solid reputation and technology on that count – and verifiable. The service lets users know when messages have been delivered and read.
There’s no charge for either the app or the service, and Blackberry isn’t generating any other revenue with it yet. But it does have plans to eventually monetise its user base through advertising, likely via sponsored messages.
BBM is being run as a separate business. Blackberry’s new CEO has reorganised the company into four independent units: messaging, machine-to-machine services, back end enterprise services (which is also cross-platform) and its once dominant smart phone business, which now has fewer customers than BBM.
Blackberry will be an emaciated shell, but it won’t die. The hardware business will shamble along, likely for years, with slow-to-change government customers, and the other three units can usefully cherry pick Blackberry’s deep base of proprietary technology. Going forward, survival is success.
A tiny, hand held projector that “can turn any wall into a touch screen” took top honors this afternoon at the second annual Showstoppers LaunchIt entrepreneurial beauty pageant at CES. Founders from a dozen start up companies gave five minute pitches to a panel of angel investors, who followed up with brief, but pointed, questions about business plans, pricing and, crucially, some kind of evidence that a market for their products and services exists.
The judges picked pico projector maker TouchJet as the best of the bunch. It connects to a mobile phone, projects an image or video onto a wall or table top, and links to a stylus that you can use to make it a touch screen-like experience.
Second place went to FINsix, which is launching a slimline power adaptor for laptop computers and USB-powered devices. It was the one product that the judges engaged with as potential buyers: you could see the gleam in their eyes as they thought about trading two power bricks for one that’s barely bigger than a plug alone.
Chromation, which is productising color sensing technology developed at Columbia University, came third. It addresses the security market where electronic authentication of products and documents is a growing, and lucrative, concern.
The rest were a diverse bunch, and included a robotic projector and video camera that wanders about the house, a solar powered beer cooler and an electronic mirror for stores that plays back (and shares) video of you trying on clothes.
Innovative ideas were very much on display, but as presiding judge Brian Cohen – a New York-based angel investor – pointed out, execution is more important to start up success than brilliance. Today’s winners showed a healthy balance of both.
High caliber consumer electronics takes on new meaning.
To shoot something a thousand meters away with a rifle, you need a sharp eye and steady hands. Or a high tech rifle that tracks your target and pulls the trigger for you.
TrackingPoint offers just such a weapon, and introduced it to the CES world at the Showstoppers event last week. It has a video camera, processing power and WiFi capability so someone can watch what you're doing in real time.
It's a logical extension of a commonplace consumer electronics trend: swapping hard won manual skills and talents for electronic smarts. Digital cameras, electronic calculators and GPS navigation systems have all done it. Why not firearms?
There's a good argument that it's not particularly sporting, but you might say the same about putting an engine on a bicycle and making a moped. The two don't compete with each other.
To use it, you find your target in the scope, mark it electronically, squeeze the trigger and then move the rifle around – like a video game – until the crosshairs are on the mark. At that moment, the rifle automatically fires a .300 caliber round, correcting for distance and other ballistic factors such as the rotation of the Earth. Splat.
A hunting guide, say, can watch it all happen on an Android or iOS device. Or a parent can coach a child. The rifle will also record up to two hours of video that you can show your friends.
Live video only goes to a smart phone or tablet within WiFi range. At this point, it doesn't support live streaming of your shot to the Internet, although that's only an Android hack away if you're interested. And of course you can do whatever you want with the recordings.
Windows 8 will survive as a mobile operating system. It'll have a place in enterprise networks, because its integration with desktop computing will appeal to some IT managers. It could even edge out RIM if the Blackberry 10 OS fails to impress. But I didn't talk to a single consumer facing app developer who is coding for anything other than Android and iOS.
Makers starting moving into CES this year. 3D printing grabbed everyone's attention, with printer manufacturers' booths jammed and a few garage scale start-ups showing products. Expect a lot more next year.
Wearable computing and home automation are closer to being commonplace. Near term, wristwatch-style Bluetooth devices like Pebble will provide quick text and incoming call notifications, plus limited control functions for your smart phone. Long term, eyeglass mounted video displays and health monitors will become self contained and fully functional, with or without a phone.
There's no clear leader in the space, but there might not need to be. Whether it's by automatically associating to a home WiFi network, talking to a networked hub or connecting directly to mobile networks, smart home devices will get their smarts from cloud-based middleware platforms. Consumers can just plug and forget. Apps and web pages will provide information and control.
It's fair to call the International CES a technology event rather than a dedicated consumer electronics show. Distinctions between consumer and enterprise markets, and shrink wrapped products and core technologies are largely irrelevant. Calling it global is still a stretch. Although attendees come from all over, only a quarter of the world's countries were represented on the exhibit floor. Two continents – Africa and South America – were all but absent. India's presence barely registered. Big as this year's show was, there's room to grow in 2014.
The ultimate input and control method is a direct connection to your brain. NeuroSky has just such a device on the market. It's a reasonably sleek headset that reads your alpha and beta brain waves, and then translates the readings into commands that are passed on to whatever you're trying to control.
Their breakout product last year was the Necomimi – fuzzy cat ears that attach to the headset and then move up or down or wiggle according to your mood. The company says they've sold hundreds of thousands of them at a hundred bucks a pop.
At the Showstoppers event tonight at CES, they demonstrated a model helicopter that you can control just by thinking about it. It's still a novelty, but it's a lot more impressive than cat ears.
They're looking for developers who can take it to the next level. The newest version of the headset costs $99 and they have an API available.
At the AT&T Hackathon this past weekend, one of the winners built an app that used a NeuroSky headset to track the wearer's mood and then direct calls accordingly. If your brainwaves show you're distracted, the call gets routed to voicemail without further vexing you.
NeuroSky is a major player in the medical EEG space already, and they want to break into the mass market. They're also thinking about branching out into cardio monitoring devices for consumer applications. So far, it's all for fun. But using your thoughts and vital signs to control the world around you will quickly become serious business.