Sensor manufacturers have some of the most underexploited intellectual property on the planet.
Sensors are what make things smart, and everything – from cars to toasters to lamps to TVs – need to get smart, fast. The race is on. Trillions of sensors are going to spread across the planet in the next few years.
We help sensor manufacturers exploit their IP
The highest purpose of a sensor is to help a company act smarter in serving their customers. Sensors will have a huge role in reshaping the dominant business model in every major industry.
But most sensor manufacturers are suppliers, far away from the high end of the value chain. This means they face pressures on their profit margins, and it slows their revenue growth.
We change this equation by finding new and higher uses for each firm’s existing expertise and IP.
Kinect is just the first wave of sensors, unleashed
Microsoft Kinect for Xbox 360 shipped 10 million units during its first four months on the market. “You are the controller” announces Microsoft’s ads, since Kinect learns to recognize each game player and uses your words and motions to control each game.
David Pogue, tech guru of The New York Times, wrote:
It has four microphones and three little lenses: a video camera, an infrared projector and a distance sensor. Together, these lenses determine where you are in the room. And not just you. The system tracks 48 parts of your body in three-dimensional space. It doesn’t just know where your hand is, like the Wii. No, the Kinect tracks the motion of your head, hands, torso, waist, knees, feet and so on….
It doesn’t merely recognize that someone is there; it recognizes your face and body. In some games, you can jump in to take a buddy’s place; the game instantly notices the change and signs you in under your own name. If you leave the room, it pauses the game automatically.
Sensors will drive wave after wave of innovation
Kinect is a wonderful example how sensors can both drive innovation and change customer expectations. It will force companies in other industries to jettison controllers and develop products that can behave as intelligently as Kinect (dumber than a video game is not a effective long-term corporate strategy.) Within days, an Open Kinect group formed online and individuals started collaborating to develop open source code and strategies for hacking Kinect’s capabilities.
Sensors are spreading into virtually everything, from our digital devices to things we don’t think of as being digital devices — like clothing and walls. This flood of innovation will change industries.
For example, UBM Techinsights recently warned the consumer medical device industry that:
The core elements of many personal medical devices – including processors, displays, memory, keyboard/data-entry methods, battery power, connectivity methods, speaker/headphones, and sensors – are being found increasingly in smartphones. Driven by apps, video, and gaming, smartphones have also become more sophisticated, boasting greater processing power and better sensors.
As a result, electronics designers can now deliver valuable medical device functionality at a lower marginal cost through integration with smartphones. Lower prices to consumers who already possess smartphones increase the addressable market for integrated products as compared to more expensive, stand-alone medical devices.
Says Jeff Brown, UBM’s vice president of business intelligence, “Smartphones provide medical technology companies with unprecedented access to an enormous consumer market. To capture this opportunity, they must think carefully about how they develop new technologies and protect their intellectual property innovations. Otherwise, they face the same fate as makers of stand-alone GPS and MP3 players – a slow decline to obsolescence.”
In other words, smart customers can now tap into sensor networks that used to be available mainly through large, established firms who were often using proprietary systems.
Sensors are already everywhere
These days, a wind sensor on a buoy outside of your town can tell you whether it’s worth driving five miles to take your sailboat out or to go wind surfing. (It can also tell you whether the wind is increasing so much that you might want to tie down the furniture in your back yard.) You can determine this from your own house or while on a business trip 3,000 miles away.
With apologies for this very long sentence designed to make an obvious point about their countless applications, sensors can… monitor your tire pressure and avoid dangerous blowouts; analyze the gait of elderly citizens and warn of falls before they occur; follow the gaze of shoppers and identify which products they examine – but don’t buy – in a store; monitor which pages readers of a magazine read, or skip; float in the air over a factory and independently monitor the plant’s emissions; detect impacts in the helmet of an athlete and make it impossible for them to hide potential serious blows to their brains; reveal when a dishwasher, refrigerator, computer, bridge or dam is about to fail; trigger a different promotion as a different customer walks by a message board; analyze the duration and quality of your sleep; warn drivers that they are about to fall asleep; prevent intoxicated drivers from operating a motor vehicle; warn a person before he or she has a heart attack; detect wasted energy in both homes and commercial buildings; warn a parent or boss when anger if creeping into their voice, to help prevent them from saying or doing things they will later regret; tell waiting customers how far away the pizza delivery guy is from your house; analyze the movements of employees through a factory, to detect wasted time and efforts, trigger product demonstrations or interactive manuals when a customer picks up or examines a product; congratulate an athlete when she swings a tennis racquet properly or achieves an efficient stride while running.
Lessons from Apple and Intel
This article by Bruce Kasanoff originally appeared May 2009 in Sensors Magazine.
If you want sensors to drive innovation and revenue growth, become obsessive about diversity. Involve a broad range of people with diverse backgrounds, skills and motivations. That’s the lesson from two highly successful firms, Intel and Apple, who have taken different approaches to driving innovation with sensors. Each firm has harnessed diversity in startlingly effective ways.
The iPhone Takes an Entrepreneurial Path
One day recently in Weston, CT, 13-year-old Connor Mulcahey completed the one-billionth download at Apple’s App Store. This milestone occurred just nine months after the store opened. This success owes much to the iPhone’s sensors. In addition to its touch-sensitive screen, the iPhone has three other sensors whose seemingly simple capabilities have enabled the outpouring of innovation that filled the App Store’s digital shelves with compelling applications.
– An accelerometer detects movement of the iPhone itself.
– An ambient light sensor monitors the light levels surrounding the iPhone.
– A proximity sensor signals when you take the iPhone away from your ear.
In developing apps that could leverage these sensors and the iPhone’s other capabilities, Apple decided to harness the world’s entrepreneurial spirit. It launched the iPhone Development Center and invited everyone-literally-to develop apps for the iPhone. Importantly, Apple didn’t just invite people to create apps; it also created a distribution channel for them in the form of Apple’s App Store.
The result has been breathtaking.
Our guess is that no one, Apple’s executives included, anticipated just how many apps would be developed to leverage the sensors in each iPhone.
In essence, Apple brought a cool product to market and then unlocked the barn doors, to a certain extent. It allowed anyone who met their standards to develop apps and to sell them through the App Store. Apple never could have built so many apps itself. The company also didn’t insist that a business case be built for each app. Instead, it shifted the development risk to anyone who was willing to accept it. ‘If you build it, we will sell it,’ Apple told the development community. Importantly, Apple didn’t promise to market or promote each invention. It just created a meritocracy in which the most popular apps would rise to the top.
The benefit of this approach is that you engage many thousands of people who think differently. Some developers think in pictures, other in words, and others by touching things. This diversity of thought creates an incredibly broad spectrum of ideas. Click on a few of the links on the App list, and you’ll see what we mean.
If your firm makes sensors, or uses them in certain applications, odds are that you won’t spot the new ideas. When you are close to a certain technology, you know where you think it will fit well. But until you have someone look at technology with a completely fresh perspective, you can’t predict how people are ultimately going to use it.
Intel Ventures Out into the World
You have to love Intel’s tagline: today is so yesterday. It reflects the firm’s focus on constant innovation. In this regard, they set the bar very high.
Intel is looking for opportunity in healthcare, and is making sensors central to the firm’s research and product development efforts. With permission, they send teams of interdisciplinary researchers into people’s homes around the globe. These teams study how people do things like remember to take prescription medicines or how elderly individuals walk around their residences. As these teams spot unmet needs, Intel combines them with even more teams: marketers, designers, and engineers. They build and test prototypes. Then they send these prototype technologies back out into people’s homes. When the firm spots substantial opportunities, it then seeks to build an ecosystem of other organizations: companies, hospitals, universities and researchers.
All the while, Intel is bringing together cross-disciplinary teams in a manner that produces measurable results.
In recent months, Intel has announced the Continua Health Alliance, whose intent was to create interoperability standards for home healthcare, as well as the Intel Health Guide, a system designed to promote greater patient engagement and more efficient care management.
Steve Agritelley, Intel’s Director of Digital Health Product Research and Innovation says, “Cross disciplinary teams aren’t easy to manage, but it’s worth pounding through. What makes it hard is what makes it worthwhile. Each person has an entirely different worldview.
“If you can get them to find overlaps and intersections of what works, that’s where the magic is. Sometimes it works better than others. Over time, people start to understand each other’s perspectives, and it gets more productive.”
The bottom line is simple. If your firm wants to drive innovation with sensors, think diversity.