With our May 16 Techonomy Lab: Man, Machines, and the Network in Menlo Park this week, we look at five startups delivering connectivity to consumers in various aspects of their lives.
BERG Cloud of London pivoted from design consultancy to cloud service with its own connected products. In 2006 BERG built the Availabot, a puppet-like, vaguely humanoid USB-plug-in gadget that notifies users when their contacts are available to chat by standing up, and then falling down when contacts go offline.
Since then, CEO Matt Webb says the company has developed several connected products including #FLOCK, a cuckoo clock integration with Twitter that notifies users of action on their Twitter accounts, and Little Printer, a device that uses the BERG Cloud platform to print customized miniature newspapers out of Web content.
Webb says the projects got his team thinking about how such consumer-oriented products could help BERG customers. “We started seeing that the things that clients have been asking us to do—to validate their product ideas and to build new products—are answered really well by BERG Cloud,” says Webb.
He says that companies are realizing connected products are the future, but investigating their viability can be costly.
“We thought, if only there was a way that companies could bring their ideas to life, to validate them more easily, because a lot of what you do in research and development isn’t going to work for obscure reasons you won’t discover until you’ve made the investment, and that’s what BERG Cloud is for.”
BERG Cloud gives a product’s hardware connectivity to its cloud service via Zigbee wireless and its web APIs allow developers to create back-end websites that dictate their product’s behavior.
But building the IoE is rife with complications, many of them—no surprise—about privacy. “When we’re using online Web services, we can be quite experimental with levels of privacy—those are just words and photographs,” Webb says. “But when you get into people’s homes, it’s a whole lot more intimate. These things are difficult to figure out.”
People Power, a Palo Alto-based startup, offers products for manufacturers and service providers that focus on remote monitoring and control through mobile devices. Its products include cloud services, apps, and open APIs. For instance, its Presence app turns a user’s old iPad or iPhone into a video camera for remotely monitoring their home. Sounds handy, but as People Power co-founder and CTO David Moss explains, user adoption presents unique challenges.
“Consumers need to realize the value of being connected to their world,” he says. “It’s a behavior change. You have to get people to realize that from their phone in their pocket, they can actually see what’s going on with their pets, their kids, and their loved ones back at home. Once they can understand that value then the next logical step is: ‘Wow, I can not only see what’s happening, I can control it remotely.’”
Moss says People Power’s APIs are open in order to encourage developers to build products that make it easier for people to connect all their devices. “From a consumer perspective, you’re going to buy whatever looks nice on the shelf when you go to the store, but you’re going to want that thing to inter-operate with the other things around you,” says Moss. “In order to get that interoperability to happen, companies really need to be exposing their APIs and making it easy for each other to integrate across these silos.”I
First Warning Systems, a Reno, Nevada-based startup, hopes to impact users’ lives on a more intimate, even life-saving, level by allowing remote breast cancer detection with its BSE bra. The company’s website explains that before a tumor can be detected, cancer cells stimulate the growth of abnormal blood vessels which generate a heat signature that sensors inside the bra can detect. After a user wears the bra for 12 hours, First Warning Systems retrieves data from the sensors and relays its algorithmic analysis to users’ computers or mobile devices.
CEO Rob Royea reports that in 2006 First Warning Systems added neural networking and predictive analytics to the bra, and today is building a product that can serve a broader demographic, with different models targeting different global communities. Royea says the beta product will be used in clinical trials in Europe and the U.S. this year, and he expects to make a commercial launch in Europe during the first half of 2014.
Royea echoes the challenges of creating connected devices that actually reach their targeted users. “You could have the best technology enabled through the Internet of Everything,” he says. “But because these are wearable bio-sensors that have to be fit to the individual, it requires a great deal of logistics.”
Kit Check is based in Washington, DC, and aims to streamline hospital logistics by eliminating the need to manually process pharmacy kits, which are standard groupings of medications for different medical events. At a small scanning station with web-based software, hospital staff can discover in seconds what’s inside a kit. Real-time location system and radio-frequency identification technologies let staff easily locate kits with expired medication or in need of replenishing.
Kit Check’s CEO Kevin MacDonald was at MIT when the term Internet of Everything was first coined. Back in 2001,“the technology just didn’t work,” he says. “The grand vision was there, but trying to read a cardboard box was a real challenge.” The concept has come a long way, he says, since the days when reading five boxed items with a scanner was challenging. Now, he says, “New York University’s anesthesia kits have 190 items, all of them liquid, and we reliably read those all the time.”
Phone Halo is tagging and tracking personal possessions using “Bluetooth low energy” enabled devices. CEO Chris Herbert calls the low-cost technology a “game changer” for his company and other startups. Bluetooth low energy runs off a small coin cell battery, lasts about a year, and allows a small tag to send data to a phone. You attach the devices to things you don’t want to lose. With Phone Halo tags and apps, users can track up to 10 items, such as wallets and keys, via iPhone or iPad. A user can locate a lost item with a GPS snapshot of its coordinates or by activating a ringer on its tag.
One day the notion of the Net existing only behind a screen will seem odd, predicts BERG Cloud’s Matt Webb. “To me the Internet won’t stay trapped behind the glass; we’ll see it flip. It’ll be everywhere.”