innovation

Don’t Expect Wearable Tech to Catch on Just Yet

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At the recent tech shows, SES, MWC and now SXSW, the big talk was around wearable devices. However, they are not that new.  We’ve had wearables for decades, in the form of:TV Camera

All of these can be categorized as either accessories or single task devices. In many ways, today’s generation of wearables are really not that different. In terms of use, is a Pebble Watch really that different to a Bluetooth earpiece, for example?

Predictions for wearable sales show growing numbers:

Sounds like a lot? Compare that to smartphones, where 456m were sold in the third quarter in 2013, making sales of close to 1 billion per year. To give wearable uptake a bit more context, think about the rapid adoption rates of iPads or apps. There’s a long way to go for wearables.

I think there are three primary reasons why wearable uptake will be so slow:

This last point is the greatest barrier to adoption. Whilst online news and blogging sites are full of technologists who love all the gadgets, that doesn’t seem to represent the majority. Most people just aren’t that bothered. We love our smartphones, which have become the centre of our digital lives. Health is certainly one area where wearables can offer real benefits, but aside from specific applications, wearables have a long way to go before they become truly useful.

Bluetooth – The Revenge

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Remember Bluetooth marketing? Well it’s back, kind of, in the form of Beacons and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).  It’s a proximity device that connects to smartphones via BLE and can send information and take payments seamlessly. There was much talk in marketing circles about the potential of Apple’s iBeacon, but what are the possibilities for marketers? And is it a realistic proposition?

At 2013’s launch of the iPhone 5S/C one feature slipped by barely noticed – iBeacons. The system makes use of a function called Bluetooth Low Energy. It has been available in high end smartphones for a few years, and unlike its earlier predecessor, it uses tiny amounts of power to connect to nearby devices. Beacons are small units (2-3cm long) that can be powered off a lithium watch battery for a couple of years. These can then be situated around a store and send data to and from smartphones via an app.

Imagine I go in to a department store, and I have their app on my smartphone. As I enter it, a Beacon picks up my presence and alert pops up on my mobile to tell me of an offer in a particular department. As I reach the relevant department, the app tells me where the product is. If I decide to purchase, then I can simply confirm that through the app. At the till, a photo pops up to confirm my identity and I leave the store. For many brands, that kind of scenario seems to offer a great solution to problems such as ‘showrooming’. It allows them to have a consumer conversation precisely at the point of purchase.

The system has already been tested by Shopkick in Macy’s  and will shortly be rolled out to over 100 Amerian Eagle Stores. . There are also companies such as Estimote who are supplying beacons that can be cheaply purchased. Some commentators have suggested that they will become an important, distruptive technology this year

Of course, Beacons are not without their problems, many of them are similar to the old-style Bluetooth. For starters, the handset needs to have the right features available; BLE and location services turned on, and a relevant app installed (according to TNS, around 35% of people in the UK use the Bluetooth feature on their handset). But as with other marketing technologies, there are also issues of user permissions and expectations. Whilst Beacons can be used to precisely monitor and guide customers through a store, the question is whether they will find this acceptable. For example, will consumers allow their photo to pop-up on the store till in order to allow them to make an automated payment on their smartphone? Given recent privacy issues from the NSA to the WiFi tracking in London, it is unlikely that consumers will trust brands enough to allow it (there will be the inevitable cry of ‘Minority Report’).

In many ways, Beacons are a slightly more targeted version of Bluetooth marketing. Some people think it could change the world,  but history suggests that the take up by consumers will be pretty small.

 

 

The Internet of (useless) Things

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In his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang, suggests that the invention of the washing machine has brought about major social change.  In the US,  it allowed women to enter the world of work much more easily, thus driving significant changes in the social structure. Clearly, the invention of the washing machine addressed an important problem. On the other hand, LG’s texting washing machine does not (Charles Arthur explained the problem very well, in last week’s Observer). The washing machine is just one of a number of objects that connect through LGs system, HomeChat.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show the talk in the tech world lately has been around connecteds and wearables. The low cost of computing and ease of development is seeing a plethora of products from both major electronic companies and start-up businesses. CES was packed with them … as someone pointed out, there were more wearables than wrists available.

 ‘Who buys an internet fridge and doesn’t already own a tablet? Who goes “I’ve got an iPad but I’d rather listen to music on my fridge”?’
Tom Coates, Mind the Product 2012

The problem that many of these products have is that they don’t address any real problems, nor make my life better. Of course if the machine could dry, fold and put the clothes away, then that would be interesting to me. Or better still, invent self cleaning fabrics that required no washing and no water or power usage. CES has therefore demonstrated the problem with the next generation of computing (or the Internet of Things or Connecteds and Wearables, or whatever you’d like to call them). There are many possibilities for the technology, but very few uses. It looks like we’re in for a phase of slightly useless ‘enhancements’ that we just don’t need.

This Tumblr probably explains the problem best: http://fuckyeahinternetfridge.tumblr.com/

And now, Wearables for Pets

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Otto: Connected pet collar for dogs and cats The world of wearable computing is not just a human affair. Otto, a UK Startup has developed a connected collar, feeder and cloud services for dogs and cats. Think Nike Fuel for animals (but with knobs on). Otto addresses a real problem, that of the growing obesity in dogs and cats. There are 130 million overweight animals in the US, UK and France alone.

The company has developed an activity tracker that attaches to a collar. It measures the energy used by a dog and cat, which is then mapped against the size and breed to deliver a feeding plan, all controlled by a smarphone app. Additionally, a feeder can be added that automatically dispenses the right amount of food based on the energy used by the pet.

Otto is currently at the prototype stage, and the company has just launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for full production here: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/otto-petcare-systems/x/5668585

A Few Examples of Some Great Emerging Tech from #reworktech

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The Re:Work conference was a multi-disciplinary event packed with some interesting tech, from health to connected objects to urban design. Here’s just some of the things that caught my eye:

Bots, bots and bots …

  • Mobile Bots – Some very handy tech from Helical Robotics  that solve problems in hard to access places. They’ve developed climbing bots that are able to inspect and repair wind turbines. Most impressive were a set of autonomous mobile bots that could assemble pipelines in remote environments.
  • Shape shifting robots – using the principles of Origami, these are small robots that can reconfigure themselves – called ‘Robogami’. There are a many applications for the tech, but these bots are particularly useful in the medical field – they can help with facial paralysis by becoming a therapy tool that fits the shape of the wearer’s head.

  • Pancake making bots – whilst it’s not exactly going to take the drudgery out of everyday life, here’s an example of a bot that taught itself to make pancakes with instructions from Wikihow. Is it churlish to say that using pre-mix pancakes is cheating? Next up, the blini making bot.

2D, 3D and 4D Objects …

  • Connected print (2D) – I love simple, accessible solutions that harness existing technologies. Using conductive inks, Novalia showed a poster of a fully working drum kit. Their examples connected to small, cheap soundboards, but the printing could also connect Makey Makey, Arduino  or Raspberry Pi boards.
  • The 3D printed house – many people have talked about the concept, but DUS Architects in The Netherlands are actually doing it. Using a giant 3D printer they are building a canal-side house over the course of 6 months.
  • 4D Objects – Yes, 4D! The fourth dimension is time. Printing complex objects in 3D is all very well, but putting them together can be a very time consuming, manual process. The solution is to create self-assembling objects that use little or no energy. Skyler Tibbits from MIT’s Self Assembly Lab http://selfassemblylab.net/ is part of a cross disciplinary team developing 4D. Of course, we’re probably all thinking one thing; wouldn’t it be great if our Ikea furniture could assemble itself. See this video to understand how it works:

And a few more interesting bits …

  • The invisible cycle helmet – An elegant solution to the problem of looking silly in a cycle helmet. It’s been widely covered in the tech press, but if you missed it, here’s see how the helmet works.
  • Interaction – Joel Gethin Lewis (from Hellicar and Lewis) has made some really cool work. Some for brands (such as Coca Cola/Maroon 5), some are health projects and others as pure art.

Two great examplesfrom Hellicar and Lewis are:

Somantics – a superb fee app that helps young people on the autistic spectrum to express themselves – download the app!
Hello Cube – an art interactive art project designed by Yayoi Kusama and controlled by Twitter users

Best of all, they open source all their work, even the brand projects. You can download some useful code their Github site.

For more on the Re:Work conference, there’s a useful Storify here: http://storify.com/elisenardin/re-work-tech-2013-a-recap or visit the Re:work site.

What is Innovation?

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A good example of innovation is this. A defibrillator that can be delivered to remote areas, quickly, by a drone quadracopter and managed from a smartphone. The reason why it is innovative is not the use of technology, but the application of it to address a real problem.

You can read more on it here: http://www.fastcoexist.com/3017084/this-drone-defibrillator-can-fix-your-heart-in-the-middle-of-nowhere#3