Friday, October 24, 2014

IoT Technology Trends, Part 3 - Dreams & Visions

Source: Wikipedia

I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind. - Emily Bronte, "Wuthering Heights"

She was just 12 years old when she began experiencing her visions - visits from angels and saints, exhorting her to dedicate her life to the defense of her country and her king. Joan of Arc was not a princess or a baroness, but a mere peasant girl in medieval France. Yet this illiterate teenager and country bumpkin changed the course of history and initiated the overthrow of the social and political fabric of both France and England.

In Joan of Arc's day, France was a land that could no longer be truly considered a nation. Opportunistic French noblemen from the province of Burgundy had allied themselves with a militarily ambitious English monarchy to mount yet another challenge to the legitimacy of the King of France and his sovereign claims over northern and southwestern parts of the kingdom. 

War had raged on and off between France and England on issues of feudal territorial assertions and the line of succession for almost 100 years. Divided against itself, France had been utterly ravaged - its economy shattered, the provinces grievously depopulated. Charles VI himself was said to be mad and was consumed with the struggle to maintain his grip on the throne while his country fell apart around him and English armies seemed to be cutting up his domain at will.

In 1428, at the tender age of 16, an unceasingly persistent Joan talked her way into the service of the French monarchy. She made a deep impression on all who met her, gathering supporters and followers both noble and common. 

France was despondent and seemingly on its last legs. The King and his followers had lost all hope, and the English had not suffered defeat at the hands of a French army for decades. In an act of sheer desperation, Joan was designated a leading strategist for what remained of the king's forces. She was often found in the front lines, carrying a banner while suffering wounds and danger along with the troops. 

Joan's planning and leadership suddenly and dramatically changed France's fortunes, as its armies began marching from victory to victory. Thru her agency, a bloody and avaricious contest for territory by feudal aristocrats and warlords became a holy cause for the people of France.

Her life ended when she was only 19. Captured by the English and Burgundians and convicted of heresy in a farcical trial, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. The war between the kingdoms of England and France raged for another twenty years.

But the die was cast. The fervor, genius and stunning courage of Joan galvanized her countrymen, turning France from a collection of loosely aligned and ever contentious dukedoms and fiefdoms into a nation unified by culture, identity and character. Joan's vision was so bright and compelling that it became the vision of her fellow countrymen.The aristocracy's hold over the people was fatally compromised, as instead of thinking of themselves as Gascon, Norman and Breton subjects of a grasping and oppressive provincial nobility, people began to increasingly see themselves as Frenchmen with a claim to their homeland and a stake in its future. 

England began to transform as well, with civil war breaking out two years after the end of the Hundred Years War with France - a chaotic and sanguinous thirty year period known to us as the War of the Roses. Both countries began to break the shackles of their feudal past and set themselves on the road to becoming nation states. This opened the way for the palingenesis of northwestern Europe thru the migration of the Renaissance from Italy to a receptive France and England.

It is true of the Nation, as of the individual, that the greatest doer must also be a great dreamer. - Theodore Roosevelt

During these particularly turbulent times in High Tech, the Internet of Things is proving to be a very fertile ground for spawning dreamers as well. Notwithstanding the failures of such titans as Samsung with its smart watch offerings and the notorious Google Glass, many other companies are paddling out on their surfboards with the hope of catching the next High Tech wave of disruptive change. Let's take a look at a couple of recent offerings to get a glimpse of the visions they are pursuing.

Sony's SmartEyeglass

Once the reigning king of consumer electronics and now a struggling also-ran, Sony seems to be banking on the SmartEyeglass to help vault it back to the summits of success it has not experienced as a company since its Walkman days. Eschewing the Google approach of projecting images onto a special prism and keeping the view out of a user's direct line of sight, SmartEyeglass takes the leap to holographic projection, displaying images and text directly in front of the user's view. 

It was very astute of Sony to move in this direction. Users who are driving or walking will be able to keep their eyes focused in front of them instead of having to divert their gaze to view the displayed information (a commonly cited fault and source of user discomfort with Google Glass.) An accelerometer and compass are built into the wearable. Furthermore, Sony has created an opportunity for the development of applications that allow information to be tagged to what the user is seeing - a tantalizing possibility for the future of Machine Vision. 

The wearable can also process voice commands and display as text. Like Google Glass, the SmartEyeglass can tie into a user's smartphone and receive alerts for incoming calls, text messages and social media activities. There is a built-in camera for capturing images or video.

There are, of course, some quirks to SmartEyeglass. The display is monochrome - color was rejected for the sake of saving battery power. Also, the main processing elements are not built into the frame but are in a seperate handheld device attached by a cable - a rather awkward aspect of the system design. The frame itself is not likely to be featured in any Haute Couture runway shows in Paris or Milan, either. I'm not a fashion-conscious guy, but I'm tellin' ya - I wouldn't be caught dead with these things on:


Sony is perceptively treating SmartEyeglass as an offering still in the prototype stage. Like Google Glass, the SmartEyeglass has been opened to 3rd party application development. However, Sony has made some of the same critical mistakes as Google. Wearing the product is a walking advertisement for the vendor, but also imposes on the user's fashion and public appearance sensibilities, thus constraining the appeal of the wearable from the get-go. Furthermore, both companies have endeavored to create a product that attempts to capture at least some of the functionality of a smartphone, though the resulting designs clearly do not have anywhere near the necessary range of capabilities to succeed in displacing the reigning king of mobile computing. 

The compromises to both designs are consequently severe - Google's supporting electronics can make the frame uncomfortably hot and increase its bulk, while Sony has had to create a separate controller with an awkward cable attachment along with a frame that seems inspired by a low budget 1950's science fiction movie. Though both products may eventually find success in certain applications, these faults make it unlikely that either will ever be a runaway hit with the general consumer the way the smartphone has been - at least not in their current form.

Epson Moverio

I just heard about Epson's efforts in the smart glass market this week from a friend who is a CPU expert in the networking space. Epson appears to have leveraged their expertise in scanners, imaging and projectors to create a wearable offering that is actually in its second generation. Most tellingly, they refer to the BT-200 as an Augmented Reality device.

The BT-200 appears to be targeted at both consumer and industrial applications. Like SmartEyeglass, the device includes a gyroscope, accelerometer and compass. However, unlike SmartEyeglass, the overlaying display is in color, and audio includes Dolby Digital Plus - hence the potential for supporting 3D gaming. Motion tracking is also integrated into the BT-200. There is work underway in Moverio's 3rd party ecosystem to create applications that allow a user to bring up blueprints or schematics while doing construction, engineering or repair work. Other developers are creating applications that support the display of course material such as text and diagrams for training sessions.

The frame appears to be designed with user comfort very much in mind. It is less than half the weight of its predecessor and can be modified to include prescription lenses. The frame also comes with shades that can be attached over the front to shield the user from environmental brightness and glare.

The Moverio BT-200 shares the same defect of the Sony SmartEyeglass in the displacement of processing circuitry to a separate controller attached by a cable. However, Epson decided that if they were going to include this inconvenient attachment, they were going to go all out. It's a big hunk of plastic - about the size of a low end smartphone. The functionality advantages include a lot of connectivity options - full Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and USB. The battery strength is also impressive, providing an estimated 6 hour life between charges. 

Despite the undoubtedly excellent engineering work that has gone into this product, the Epson Moverio BT-200 provides definitive proof that High Tech companies need to avoid developing products that make a fashion statement. The 'aesthetics' of the design would be suitable only for an alien stepping off a flying saucer at Area 51:


Dispel this cloud, the light of heaven restore;
Give me to see, and Ajax asks no more. - Homer, "The Iliad"

Though Google, Sony and Epson are all doing the best they can to design new value-added mobile computing platforms, the limitations of current microelectronics technology are quite evident in current smart glass offerings. One glaring defect Moverio and SmartEyeglass have in common is a fatal one for automotive applications - they block a user's peripheral vision. Google Glass gets around this by stretching out the microelectronics casing along the temple on one side. However, as mentioned previously, Google's placement of the display out of the user's line of sight defeats the purpose of abstracting an automobile's instrument panel - the user still has to momentarily take his eyes off the road. All three companies still have a lot of work ahead of them to turn their smart glasses into widely adopted products.

Phillips HUE

A friend of mine in the microcontroller space informed me two weeks ago that Phillips was getting into the IoT with a selection of wireless - enabled light bulbs. At first I thought he was pulling my leg, but to my astonishment it turned out to be true. Phillips has decided to give light bulbs a High Tech flavor and bring them into the 21st century.

The bulbs themselves are LED and from outward appearances seem to be completely normal. They are, however, governed by a master controller (or 'bridge') which manages the light bulbs with a local wireless network using the Zigbee Light Link protocol. Available in three different socket selections, the bulbs can be directed to emit light in 16M different colors. Shading and intensity can be controlled dynamically as well. The bulbs can even be configured to flash or strobe.

The bridge can wirelessly manage up to 50 bulbs at a time. It is connected to the internet across a cable plugged into a home gateway. Control is exercised through a smartphone app. In this respect, Phillips has shown themselves to be quite a bit smarter than Apple, Google, Samsung or Sony. They understand that the smartphone will be the likely centerpiece of the digital aspect of consumer's lives and do not pretend that their smart lighting system is anything more than a smartphone accessory.

The app permits the user to save their favorite light configurations and manage all aspects of lighting functionality. The lights can even be governed by a timer.

Hue has been opened to 3rd party software developers and the range of apps available is quite amazing. Light bulb activity can even be tied into a user's iTunes library or television. For those who are completely taken by Hue and have lots of free time on their hands, there are additional lamps and strip lights available that, along with iTunes support, could help a user turn their home into a disco:

However, Hue is not without its flaws. Increased functionality walks hand in hand with complexity and the potential for more and greater complications. For example: one of the problems with which Phillips is wrestling at the moment is how to deliver software upgrades to a bridge and its light bulb network unobtrusively. Another imperfection of Hue can best be explained by experiencing it first hand. Try searching for Hue on Amazon or the Apple store, and prepare yourself for a rather intense jolt of sticker shock.

In the multiple IoT editorials that I've penned for this blog, we've seen a significant number of devices and applications that can be broadly described as IoT offerings. There's lessons to be learned from all of them. But with these lessons and examples in hand, what can a dreamer or visionary do to develop their own game-changing IoT product? 

We'll look at some of those resources in the next blog post.