Friday, January 9, 2015

The IoT at CES 2015


What makes the desert beautiful is that it hides, somewhere, a well. - Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "The Little Prince"

A grand convergence of High Tech business interests converged on Las Vegas, Nevada this week at the Consumer Electronics Show. I've been to this show many times and the novelty of it, as well as its location, has worn off at this point. Nevertheless, I decided to attend the event for one day to see what perspectives and information I could pick up from companies who are hoping to make a name for themselves in the embryonic IoT market. 

The firms pursuing this segment were concentrated at the Sands Expo Center next to the Venetian Hotel and Casino complex, so I spent all of my time over there. I found my investigations of the display booths and suites along with the conversations I had with quite an assortment of enthusiastic, well spoken and extremely helpful booth attendants (both technical and non-technical) to be illuminating.

2015 will be a pivotal year for the High Tech industry and the global economy in general. With the mobile computing segment (tablets and smartphones) rolling over in 2014 and, as I think very likely, plateauing this year, gaining a sense of where the early trends for the IoT are heading is critical.



The digital fitness section of the show floor was awash in smartwatch offerings, accompanied by a bevy of booth presenters dressed for a health club workout. This segment of the IoT is already off to a rocky start, as surveys have noted that about half of the early adopters no longer use their watches when they exercise and instead have left their gadgets to gather dust in a drawer. 

Nevertheless, there were a few interesting phenomena to be seen on the show floor. FitBit's newest line is very slim, small, unobtrusive and offered in attractive but subdued colors. This was a very shrewd design choice by the company, as fashion - conscious users still have a broad enough selection and sufficiently attractive styling to choose from, while consumers who are oblivious to fashion considerations will still be able to use the devices without their smartwatches advertising themselves in a glaring and vulgar manner on their wrist or ankle.

There is one major problem with the FitBit offering, though - a rather ironic consequence of the leadership position the company already has in this sector. Fully 90% of the other smart watch firms displayed products that look almost identical. Because of this, it's a safe bet that 2015 will likely see a very severe shakeout in the fitness wearables market and half or more of the CES 2015 companies displaying their wares will not make it to CES 2016. 

All greatness of character is dependent on individuality. The man who has no other existence than that which he partakes in common with all around him, will never have any other than an existence of mediocrity. - James Fenimore Cooper

A few companies very shrewdly chose a decidedly unconventional design path for their smartwatch form factors. Wellograph offers smartwatches for both health and medical applications that have a somewhat boxy shape. Depending on the color, finish and wristband, some of them actually look rather attractive.


Another exceptional exhibit was the fitness smartwatch offering from Garmin. There were several models on display which were decidedly BIG and with lots of testosterone appeal. If anything, they hearkened back to the dive watches that were made so famous by Lloyd Bridges in the Sea Hunt television series of the late 1950's. Playing as uber-macho character Mike Nelson, Bridges helped popularize the Rolex brand in the USA by prominently sporting one of those big hunks of metal as a standard part of his diving gear while solving crimes and having adventures.


A particularly flashy standout was MisFit. Outsmarting the likes of Google, Samsung and Apple, MisFit partnered with Swarovski to develop a line of 'Smart Jewelry' consisting of pendants, bracelets and wristbands that are anything but subtle. For anyone who wants smart wearables that make a brazen in-your-face fashion statement, MisFit's line is probably going to be their choice for 2015.

A number of the wearables firms were exclusively focused on tracking devices for pets. Amazingly, these companies all had tracking collars which they could get even cats to wear. Booths big and small were getting quite a lot of foot traffic, suggesting that this part of the wearables segment will be a healthy one this year. 


The fashion of this world passeth away. - I Corinthians, VII. 31

In order to define a future for themselves that was not dependent on the ephemeral vagaries of fashion, a number of companies on the show floor were promoting wearables for medical applications. Among them was an Irvine, California company called Masimo that was hawking its devices for both sports and medical uses. Supported functions included pulse oximetry, body temperature, a variety of hemoglobin statistics and even EEG readings. The booth accomodated a large water tank on a pedestal wherein a diver in full wetsuit would submerge himself and hold his breath for an extended period of time while wearing some of the Masimo gear to monitor his condition. I returned about twenty minutes after first visiting the booth and was relieved to see that the poor guy had indeed survived.

Another notable attendee was Omron, a japanese firm. One of their prominently displayed lines was a selection of small blood pressure monitors. Many of Omron's devices were sophisticated combinations of sensors and functions, though the blood pressure monitoring devices stood out as single function products. Apparently the regulatory obstacles imposed by the FDA effectively preclude combining blood pressure measurement with other capabilities. Furthermore, nobody seems to have found an alternative to the inflatable cuff method of measuring blood pressure, further hampering higher levels of functional integration or remote operation.

Qardio also had an extensive array of wearables for medical monitoring and diagnostics. Their emphasis was particularly interesting as a competitive differentiator in that they were focused on out-patient applications wherein a medical practitioner could receive data downloads from his/her patients. To support this, Qardio products support both BT and WiFi connectivity.

Smart Glasses

I didn't have time to visit the huge Sony booth on the main floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center and, as best as I could tell, Google didn't have a presence at the show. However, I did find Epson at the Sands Expo and had a chance to take a look at their latest development work on the Moverio Smart Glass offering.

Clearly Epson is still very heavily committed to the success of Moverio and continues to pursue industrial and business applications for the product. However, there seemed to be very little change in the basic design on which I reported in my October 24 editorial ( .) This is fundamentally worrisome, as the design is surprisingly heavy and is bound to be uncomfortable to wear over extended periods.  Epson, at least, is evidently a long way off from finding chip and optical technology that can support a small, low power design which could be clipped onto any pair of eyeglasses and would project information and graphics onto a flip-down eyepiece that could be telescoped to bring into proper focus.


The sculptor does not work for the anatomist, but for the common observer of life and nature. - John Ruskin

I was quite dumbfounded to see a couple of chip companies at the Sands Expo. The semiconductor firms I encountered were both quite impressive, though, and made it clear that they very much belonged at the show.

Linear Dimensions Semiconductor is plainly focused on wearable designs. Their capabilities encompass design and product engineering at both the chip and system level and include reference designs. Nordic Semiconductor develops and sells BT chips but seems to spend an enormous amount of engineering effort in supporting applications at the system level. Their support consists of writing literally millions of lines of code while also providing, maintaining and supporting SDKs and evaluation boards.

The expertise of these two companies in sculpting value from silicon was very evident and their value propositions to the IoT market are indisputable. What was particularly interesting in my conversations with their technical people was their take on the evolution of the wireless spectrum for IoT. The dominance of Bluetooth LE was recognized by both, but neither was happy about it. In fact, both complained that given the data rates that need to be supported for existing and emerging IoT applications, BT LE was doing a rather poor job with regards to power consumption and, by extension, battery life. 

It's fair to say that the BT SIG has its work cut out for them if they want Bluetooth to maintain its current position in this market space. Incorporating UWB into a new Bluetooth standard would undoubtedly help with both power efficiency and channel separation, but it remains to be seen if the rumors are true and the SIG moves decisively in that direction.

This n' That

Part of the show floor was occupied by Robotics companies. Most of them were showing off what looked like improved versions of the Segway two-wheeled conveyance. ABB stood out from the crowd by demonstrating several actual robots for industrial automation, and it was a very impressive display indeed.

There was also a section of the floor dedicated to 3D printing. I didn't spend any significant time there, as I was on a mission to discover as much as I could on IoT-focused companies.

A number of companies were showing off their latest drone technology. For those of us who, as kids, operated either fueled model airplanes controlled by tethered strings or battery powered model boats steered with radio commands, the newest drones looked like a lot of fun.

Finally, there were quite a few firms offering simpler, low cost products such as batteries, earbuds and chargers for wearable devices. Despite the investments many of these companies made in stocking their booths with interesting, well designed products and laying out their booth spaces in an attractive way, very few of them had any real traffic. This was quite disconcerting and indirectly revealed an undercurrent to the economic perspective of the IoT firms at the show.


Certainty generally is illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man. - Oliver Wendell Holmes

A dominant theme of the many companies demonstrating IoT wearables at the Sands Expo was how their products - available in a selection of colors and styles, with supporting smartphone apps - could serve consumers with active lifestyles. There was an enormous effort to convince potential customers of how their appearance would be more fashionable and their lives more exciting & enjoyable if they had the right wearable.

What remained unspoken in this positioning and messaging, however, was the type of consumer that was being targeted by these firms - the high end of the consumer market that has significant disposable income. There seems to be an instinctive recognition on the part of market players that the mass market no longer has the discretionary cash to spend on these sorts of gadgets and doodads. This differs conspicuously from how Apple promoted the iPhone, which was targeted at a much broader market during a very different economic environment back in 2007.

What does this mean for the prospects of the 2015 IoT market? I think it's fair to say that the prognostications from various companies and pundits that the segment would grow at a pace to become a $50B market by 2020 is plainly idiotic. The targeted customer base is too small to support such growth.

Nevertheless, this will be a very interesting market to watch. Considering current economic conditions globally as well as the segment targeted for this first major push of IoT products, the winners and losers are, in my estimation, likely to become apparent far more quickly than we've seen in the past. To put it differently, I would bet that 2015 will see quite a few wearables companies fail in their efforts - including several big aspirants - while a few firms will achieve inordinate success. The washout and reconciliation rate of IoT participants will be both rapid and shocking, with the market evolving at a much faster clip than that to which any of us are accustomed.