SAN JOSE, Calif. — Chris Enslin wants a sub-$1 sensor for the Internet of Things. For the right product, his company might be willing to purchase a few million of them — a year.
The vice president for digital enterprise solutions at Walmart shared his thoughts on IoT, machine learning, and more in a wide-ranging interview. Perhaps the most interesting item on his wish list is a good, cheap sensor.
“Lick-and-stick sensors with probes at our scale are still considered very expensive … I would love a sensor that senses movement, heat, and vibration … preferably running on energy harvesting since batteries typically only last 12 to 18 months … and I would love to get it for pennies,” said Enslin, who heads up a 500-person team working on IoT, robotics, and AI for the giant retailer.
“Some in retail have sensors with a bill of materials just below $10 — that’s very expensive at our scale. We have nearly 12,000 stores.”
Such sensors could, “in theory, be on each item you sell … intelligent packaging someday could help re-order products from home when they get low,” he added.
On the road to this science-fiction fantasy, Walmart is working toward such sensors with grad students in a handful of universities. Meanwhile, it just completed this year an initial rudimentary deployment of IoT in its estimated 5,000 stories in the U.S.
The company’s current use of IoT is “fairly immature. We haven’t tapped into the potential of an end-to end platform,” said Enslin. “We use sensors in refrigerators in stores and heat/vibration/color sensors and some computer vision to read codes for streaming analytics to each store to predict and prescribe preventative maintenance and food safety. It replaces a log management system.”
The next step is to roll out the refrigerator network to stores outside the U.S. Meanwhile, it is also exploring apps using its LED lights.
“At our scale, just changing light bulbs is a huge P/L. EEs on our team are interested in using LEDs as beacons. Combining intelligent shelves with some computer vision creates a rich playground for applications.”
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