The hidden economic boom at CES

The show appears to be mostly about novelties or expected tech toys -- unless you look hard enough

ces press event photo
Patrick Thibodeau/Computerworld

LAS VEGAS -- The forecast from Harvard University that the Internet of Things (IoT) will unleash a new economic boom is not immediately apparent at this year's International CES. Most of the new technologies on display here are forgettable novelties.

The most immediate trend by device makers is to add a wireless radio, processor and sensor to anything with space to house them: toothbrushes, baby pacifiers, bicycles, and sports equipment -- all connected to a data recording app. Gesture technology, very prevalent, is nice but no must-have. Home automation and wearable products proliferate. Photographers from around the world get on bended knee to snap a photo of the latest connected coffee pot.

IoT-related demonstrations are mostly incremental. The big Panasonic press conference Monday that included its IoT home security device might have been interesting in 2011. The Sharp "near 8K" TV, also revealed Monday, was stunning in its clarity and brilliance. But these kind of advances are expected these days and rarely excite.

There has been, so far, no breakthrough technology unveiled.

But there is something interesting going on at CES. It's still on the fringes and is championed by people with backgrounds in computational systems biology, physics, electrical and software engineering and other hard science skills. They see the ocean of wearables and imagine something completely new arising.

These scientists, part of team of about 16, work for LifeQ and were something of an oddity at CES. This firm had no technology to demonstrate, and consequently, there was no line of reporters waiting to attend its news conference. But this firm will be selling a service that may turn wearables, such as smartwatches, into devices that can save your life.

LifeQ is an applied mathematics firm. It is using medical data collected over the last 100 to 150 years to create models that describe human physiology and then connecting those models with the input from sensors, said Riaan Conradie, a founder of LifeQ. Conradie has a Ph.D in biochemistry.

An optical sensor pumps light into the skin at different wavelengths. There are certain molecules that absorb some of the light, and a portion of that light gets reflected back. From the patterns of reflected light, you can deduce a lot: hemoglobin levels, glucose levels and respiration data, among many other things, Conradie said in an interview.

"We deliver almost all the metrics that you need in an ICU setting," he said. The models can also determine stress and training levels, and because the body reacts differently to the types of food a person consumes, it's possible to know whether someone is eating a carbohydrate-heavy meal or a protein-rich one. In time, this system will be used to predict heart attacks or a higher risk for diabetes, he said.

LifeQ has received about $11 million in funding so far, and plans to begin offering its services this year.

The cost of the optical sensor is low, and Conradie said the intent is to keep wearables as inexpensive as possible.

Wearable makers can include the optical sensor in their products. The data is sent to the cloud, and the resulting data streams will be made available to application developers and wearable device makers.

The business model that LifeQ pursues is along the lines of the type described by Michael Porter, an economist at the Harvard Business School and James Heppelmann, president and CEO of IoT firm PTC, in their recent Harvard Business Review essay.

They see IoT leading to new services, better products and new types of economic activity as various products, services and industries connect in new ways. They believe it will lead to an economic boom.

At CES today, wearable makers offer what amounts to rudimentary data, such as distance traveled while walking. But once these inexpensive devices are linked to large amounts of scientific data -- data that represent the sum of our knowledge -- then these wearables will no longer be nice-to-have novelties.

They'll be must-haves.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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