The Technology That Enables Gadgets

E-mail Barbara Goode

The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) sets off waves that ripple throughout the year and reach the shores of realms not obviously related. On the eve of this year's event, which took place January 5-8 in Las Vegas, Washington Post staff writer Mike Musgrove stated that while CES "has always been about the gadgets," this year's event promised to move beyond devices. "The technology driving hardware will get more attention in Las Vegas," he wrote.

The 2006 show, he explained, attracted participants who have nothing to do with gadgets but play influential roles in the future of the industry: Web giants Google and Yahoo! Inc. (who stole some thunder from CES's traditional focal point, Microsoft), and trade groups representing the recording and motion picture industries. The appearance of these trade groups is especially interesting because, as he reminds us, the Motion Picture Association of America and the recording industry have traditionally had an adversarial relationship with technologists (remember Napster?).

Evidence of sensors
Although Musgrove made no specific mention of sensors among those technologies driving hardware development, plenty of CES exhibitors did. For instance, Delphi announced its collision mitigation system, which includes Forewarn smart cruise control, forward collision warning (with pre-crash functionality that includes autonomous braking), lane departure warning, and capabilities to add IR active night vision.

Other exhibitors focused on sensors as part of networked systems—especially wireless networks. I was not familiar with Hawking Technologies until I received a news release saying the company has embedded Freescale's ZigBee-based hardware into its new HomeRemote offering, which enables homeowners to monitor, control, and secure their homes from a Web interface. Along similar lines, SmartLabs Inc. announced the first wireline modem chip supporting the company's Insteon home-control networking technology.

Putting pieces together
Musgrove wrote that Stephen Baker, an analyst at research firm NPD Group, used to come to CES to see the latest digital devices—cameras, music players, TVs, etc.—but now, "he's seeking out the companies that look like they are getting those pieces of the digital world to work with each other seamlessly and even wirelessly."

Like the other technologies Musgrove alludes to, sensor technology has traditionally been a behind-the-scenes player available to empower the products and systems you design. Your customers—consumers, businesses, or other groups—have a certain expectation about the abilities and services performed by gadgets and systems, just as you have increasingly high expectations of sensors. But the real value is in the benefit that the products and systems offer-and much of that benefit derives from transferring and using the data gathered by sensors, GPS, RFID; and provided by various databases.

Isn't this "getting [the] pieces of the digital world to work together" as important in the greater realm of sensor-based automation as it is in the consumer electronics arena? You bet. The hardware becomes a given, and the real action is in the seamless collection of and access to data. That's why companies focusing on wireless data communication have increasingly shown up at Sensors Expo in recent years. That's why I predict that businesses offering data analysis products and services will follow suit. And it's why Sensors gives increasing attention to wireless sensor operation and data management.

The ripple starts here
Shortly after 9/11, when the sensor world was newly abuzz with visions of homeland security application, I got to speak with the oft-hailed future-forecaster Paul Saffo, who can be enthralling-and also worthwhile listening to (he admonishes business execs to use the scientific method to try to prove themselves wrong before becoming too enamored of their vision). Here's one of the things he told me:

"Security applications are a red herring. The real deal is the transformation of the Military Industrial Complex to the Military Entertainment Complex. Technology used to trickle down, being developed first for high-end, high-cost applications, and later making its way into people's homes. But that won't be the case in the future. The most advanced technology will show up in consumer electronics."

Welcome to that future.




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