On Cows and Sewers

Cambridge Wireless Connected Devices SIG “I Don’t Use Wireless Yet – What Can It Do For My Business?”

Life is like a sewer – what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. Tom Lehrer US humorist.

diagram courtesy of Pearson Scott Foresman / Wikimedia commons

Yesterday I spent an interesting afternoon at Cambridge Consultants learning and talking about the future of connected devices – and the likelihood of of sharing the world with 50 billion of them.  The afternoon turned out to be a bit of an old-boys (and sadly it was mostly boys) reunion.  I met ex-colleagues from my days at Origin, Symbionics and Qualcomm, some of whom I haven’t seen for around 15 years, along with putting faces to some names I knew from my Sentec days.

We had some excellent and interesting presentations:

  • a good analysis from Tim Ensor of CCL on how we might get to 50 billion connected devices, half of which are “foreseeable”, and the other half “aspirational”
  • a review of technology uptake by Steve Kay of Anglian Water, along with the gloriously named Sewernet, aiming to create smart sewerage.  It always surprises me when I’m reminded of how conservative the water industry has been in uptake of technology (but it also surprises me that it’s impossible to send an email to HMRC)
  • insight into smartphone security by Laurent Simon from the Computer Labs.  In essence the message seems to be buy iPhone if you care about security.  This rather depressing message was particularly relevant to the next presentation…
  • a very professional presentation by Craig Tillotson of Faster Payments, about the soon to be released pan-industry mobile payments system, allowing us to use our mobiles to pay anyone for whom we have a mobile phone number.  A noble goal, but to the uninitiated there seems to be a whole bunch of issues in relation to privacy and security
  • last, and certainly not least, the remarkable story of Well Cow as told by David Tagardine of TTP – wireless telemetry straight from the stomach of a cow. The physical scale of the wireless bio-sensors swallowed by cows was truly impressive

I certainly hadn’t been expecting to learn a lot of gory detail about bovine digestive anatomy and sewers. I had been expecting to hear a lot more about internet connected “things” such as thermostats and other sensors, smart grid, smart appliances (the ubiquitous internet connected fridge did get a mention), and about technology enablers for making radical reductions in device cost, so I was surprised but certainly not disappointed by the afternoon.  Thanks Cambridge Wireless for a fascinating afternoon.

Making it Tangible

Not long after my last post about selling design services I saw an announcement from my old company Sentec – they have produced a reference design for a compact home monitor, just in time for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. This has become MicroMonitor http://www.sentec.co.uk/news-and-events/news-archive/Sentec-launches-MicroMonitor-sensing-technology-platform-for-smart-homes.

MicroMonitor is a very cute approach to communicating the abilities of a company. It’s a reference design or platform, not a product – you’re not likely to be able to buy one, but what a fabulous way to demonstrate the meaning of design services and intellectual property. Showing this to a customer, and more impressively showing it working is infinitely more convincing than any number of Powerpoint slides, however passionately presented. Whether at a trade show or a sales presentation, when they see something like this customers will instantly understand what you can do for them – and they will believe that you have the ability to deliver it. Most people find it much easier to relate to a thing than to an idea. This is a great example of engineering and marketing working together.

And the results?  After writing the above I got some feedback from my friends at Sentec on the outcome of taking these little devices to CES.  I was really pleased to hear that the experience did indeed support my argument – it was ‘a huge success’ and ‘generated a huge amount of leads’.  Many of the leads were for consultancy not directly related to the devices themselves but ‘because it was a TANGIBLE showcase of our skills, not just PowerPoint engineering!!’  Great results, but don’t forget it’s taken a lot of hard work to get to this point, and to get a real pay-back there’s a lot more work yet to come.

I am very happy that I played a very small part in the development of this little device, exactly a year ago, while walking the floor at CES 2012. We were trying to sell Sentec’s intellectual property and product design services in power measurement. Talking to potential customers and taking inspiration from some of the exhibitors’ products an idea began to gel, and we had sketches for the concept.  Well done to the guys for going all the way, and developing the marketing backup to go with it.