The next battle is not just about wearables but smart sensors

This year’s CES was filled with tons of interesting technologies such as bendable super-high-resolution TVs, new computers that have multiple OSs, wearables, and other cool stuff. What really caught my attention was the hype around smart sensors: every year there is a lot of hype about certain technologies that do not stick (remember 3D?), but I think this one is going to, although not how we think it will.

There is a lot of chatter around wearables, but I think it is a limiting term if we think about the core technology: the smart sensor. A wearable is just a series of sensors that can process data in the environment and communicate with the user and a network fitted to be on a human. The Fitbit is a great example of this, it hangs in your wrist and senses step movements and altitude changes, which it then processes and gives the user clear actionable data through the LED screen and through their apps (web and mobile). Another example of a wearable is the Mimo baby monitor which is embedded in a pajama and keeps track of your baby’s vitals and lets you know if anything goes wrong through your mobile device.

Another buzz word going on around right now is the Internet of Things. Whenever there is a new buzz word, everybody tries to define it. For me, it’s comprised of two categories: the first is the miniaturization of a PC/Mobile Device (think of an ATM or Auto dashboard) and the second is the application of smart sensors. This second one has a huge potential and wearables are part of this category even though the industry thinks they are not.

So what are the implications of the rise of the smart sensor? Well, the most important thing to realize is that there will not be a single device that dominates the ecosystem. Devices will be developed to solve single use needs. For example, Nest is a smart sensor that helps keep the temperature as you like it and save energy, but it does not aim to be anything else (which is good!). Because of this fragmentation, a Store is irrelevant as you will not be able to gain enough market space to gain momentum to make developers “rich”. Also, because these devices are single use, a Store is a lot less relevant than in a generic device as an iPhone, as its power comes from the personalization brought by the apps, not the device itself.

There are a lot of players today trying to crack this new market opportunity. The companies that will prevail will be able to provide two things: a viable hardware development platform and a specialized service provider. Opposite to what happened in the mobile world (where the device is generic and multi-purpose), smart sensors will be personalized and practically single-purpose. The same way Apple’s App Store allowed developers to monetize their software writing skills, smart sensors will allow hardware savvy people to produce relatively low-cost high-value hardware. You only need to look at the diverse projects in Kickstarter to understand you don’t need millions to create one of these smart sensors. The company that can provide such platform, where hardware developers can easily design and build their products, will probably be successful.

Once the hardware is defined, it will need a network where it can exchange data to become useful. The network stack might be Wi-Fi or Bluetooth LE, but the value will come from the logic and the service behind it. It will be a specialized service that will need to scale depending on how many devices and users are using it. It will be more efficient than the services for mobile applications, as these devices will be more limited in processing power and will be very sensitive to energy consumption metrics. Whatever company provides this kind of infrastructure (such as Amazon helping mobile development with AWS), will rule them all.

As with any new technology wave, we will see a lot of cool stuff: smart cutting boards that tell you the weight, calories and temperature of your food, or shoes that tell you when your steps are too strong and you are hurting your knees or even teeth that tell you when you are eating too much sugar. The imagination will be the limit and only a few will succeed. The market will learn from these failures and will move forward. Smart sensors will help us to understand our environment and to make informed decisions about it. Of course, the biggest challenge will be to provide a way for these companies to retail their devices, but that is somewhat beyond this geek’s knowledge.

Till next time, sense on.

Image via Jawbone

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