SAN JOSE, Calif. Proliferating wireless data transmitters and sensors will be the enablers of a new information revolution, futurist Paul Saffo told the Sensor Expo here Tuesday (May 21), but component and equipment makers will lose out to the collectors and organizers of sensor data if they can't spot the technology's commercial possibilities, Saffo said.
The spread of remote data sensors, many with wireless connections to the Internet, will increase the intelligence of machinery and exponentially multiply the amount of data available about the machinery's use, said Saffo, who heads the Institute for the Future (Menlo Park, Calif.). The Lexus or Mercedes that reports a mistuned engine to a service center via satellite is actually a mundane example of such technology, Saffo said, and so is the Maytag washer that initiates a call for service via the Internet. Real money will be made by the service center that uses collected data to determine that a user likes to have a Starbuck's coffee-almond latte while the car is being serviced, and charges a subscription fee to keep that information handy, he said.
"Let's face it: You don't buy software like Microsoft's, you rent it," he said. "Your subscription is 'renewed' each time you buy an upgrade, or take the chance that the files you generate will be incompatible with other people's if you don't upgrade." The practice, along with current cell phone distribution mechanisms, forms the basis for "the service economy" now taking shape, Saffo said. Consumers will accept sensor-laden cell phones, PDAs, wearable computers, washing machines and cars in time as hosts for downloadable software-triggered subscription services. And what the cell phone does will depend less on its hardware and more on the service a user subscribes to.
Pushing this notion to its logical extreme, Saffo said the convergence of sensor-laden equipment, wireless data transmission and downloadable subscription software will allow individuals to reconfigure machinery on the fly. Out for a drive on his own, a young male motorist will be able to electronically configure his car to have the acceleration, steering, suspension and braking features of a sports car. But by flicking a switch when his wife and children are aboard, the vehicle can be reconfigured to behave like a "slushy Buick," Saffo said. "We're not going to buy cars," he said, "we're going to subscribe to cars."
But the cleverest applications for wireless sensors will bubble up from consumers before an infrastructure is in place, Saffo said. Sports- and fashion-conscious consumers will be wearing Polar watches with electronic heart rate monitors and wireless transceivers, for example, long before their doctors prescribe them, Saffo said.
Many of the devices on the Sensors Expo show flow especially in the area identified as the R&D Pavilion buttressed Saffo's conjectures. Charmed Technology (Santa Monica, Calif.), a spin-off of MIT's Media Labs, demonstrated wearable computers in a variety of form factors. One eye-catching belt-wearable device, powered by an 800-MHz Transmeta processor and connected to others via an IEEE 802.11b wireless network, would be particularly useful for text-to-speech and speech-to-text applications talking computers, suggested Charmed president Alex Lightman.
MEMS systems integrator Crossbow Technology Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) demonstrated a wireless sensor net based on a battalion of battery-powered remote data sensors that use the 900-MHz ISM band to communicate with each other and a portable PC host. The remote units are built on an Atmel Corp. microcontroller and use the Tiny operating systems developed at the Berkeley Wireless Research Center to support messaging, said chief executive officer Michael Horton.
InHand Electronics (Rockville, Md.), a developer of handheld platforms, demonstrated the "soldier's PDA" of customer Raytheon. Equipped with a large display and position finders, the system would offer maps, directions and valuable information not on a favorite restaurant for a user's next battle.