7 thoughts about sensors

Posted on September 17, 2012. Filed under: startups, venture capital |

So…here are a few thoughts about the sensor market:

1) sensors that track human behavior are pretty boring. You can put it them in a wristband, or a shoe, or a phone, or a necklace but fundamentally there is only so much you can do with the information of how many steps I take and what direction I am going. Accelerometer, altimeter, pedometer…all pretty boring no matter how an application wraps the information. There is a reason that the output of these sensors has stopped at the visualization layer, and not really broken into intelligence…it’s because that shit is not very meaningful…in a vacuum at least.

2) Sensors that track things are fascinating but early: You can put them in your home, you can put them on your garage door, you can put them on your pill bottle, or your tooth brush, or your car, etc…and they can tell you what’s going on with any given thing. Is it getting hot, is it getting cold, is it on, is it off, is it moving or stationary, etc, etc., etc. Here the applications can become more interesting…but there are challenges abound. Size, cost, form, connectivity protocol, and very importantly distribution and the related network requirements for truly meaningful aplications all hamper what we can loosely refer to as “the internet of things”

3) Sensors that track things do not share a standard protocol but there aint gonna be twelve base stations in my house, so something is gonna have to give on data portability at the API/cloud layer…but none of this is defined and its hard to see a software application being built independent of the hardware layer due to lack of penetration in the short run…so it seems like a long slug to be the centralized consumptive/intelligence layer in the near term…unless…you are the incumbent/enterprise…which brings me to #4

4) In the near term, dense sensor distribution seems more plausible through the large OEM than direct to consumer…but…the General Electrics and Time Warners of the world that are positioned to scale distribution of the base station and/or the connected things both lack the critical software application DNA to complete the picture at the consumer layer…

5) so fuck, where is the opportunity? For one, I think you could build a nice little business providing turnkey sensor/software solutions to large OEMs…but boy will that be a bitch of a sales cycle…regardless, I think you could do it for them…probably through a lens of analytics…it’s not enough to promise the OEM’s better user experience for their customers…I think the sale looks something like “you sell 2 million blenders a year, and the second they leave the shelf at Walmart, they go dark and you have no idea what usage and performance look like until some small portion of the user base tries to return it or replace it…by letting us connect all of your things with sensors that talk to a base station and ultimately the cloud, we can give you insight that will inform your product development and marketing decisions in a much more intelligent way.” In software and application development, we get amazing, near real time analytics on what people are doing with our products…and OEM manufacturing should step into the 21st century product development cycle…I think.

6) But…#5 is not for everyone…so what else can we do today? I believe the holy grail lies not in the internet of things alone, nor in wearable technology and sensors alone, but rather in the interaction between these two types of sensor systems…It is in the combination of what we are doing and what our things are doing that we find the raw inputs necessary to build true intelligence atop physical sensors…I cannot see any alternative today other than an attempt to turn the mobile device into a base station for physically distributed sensors on things…and somehow figure out your way around power requirements, etc…I’d like to build a Mophie that interacts with very cheap sensors on everything I own and use…but that is very challenging…and goddam it, every layer you’d like to play at to get to the holy grail is a capital investment in the tens and likely hundreds of millions of dollars

7) Which leaves us at the layer of end to end, software/hardware solutions in a specific vertical with real world utility value in the near term and a flexible path and position to platform or horizontal consumptive layer as hundreds of companies attempt to build out these networks…most will fail, but infrastructure, density, and standards will emerge…and if you are in the game with a real business and domain expertise over the next 10 years with a brand and one if not a few end to end vertical solutions in the space…maybe…just maybe…you get to take the whole enchilada?

If anyone has opinions, please share…but that’s kind of how it looks to me

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9 Responses to “7 thoughts about sensors”

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you need to go live in norway. they’ve been in the 21st century mode of living for almost 20 years. we are still 30 years behind them. there is virtually nothing that is not connected, reporting, reacting, predicting, enabling there across all platform, intersecting all domains and walks of life. it’s like the whole fucking country took the Jetsons to heart and we (the US) just watched the show

dope. i was planning on going to denmark soon…maybe i’ll do both. thanks

About #3. I like the idea of a Twitter for the machines.
But, as always, it’s impossible to build a platform without owning the user-base.
I would go for #7 (Withings), then move to #3 as you suggest (but you don’t really control when you can move to #3 actually).

I have a Withing scale, but I agree it’s really boring.
What I really miss is something connected to my eating habits. But getting the data here is hard, but I’m willing to help the app by telling them what I ate if I get enough value out of that. Difficulty vs value. Doesn’t have to be always a sensor (at first).

Direct to consumer sounds so fun, but I haven’t heard of an approach that offers a decent-enough ROI for consumers than mainstream adoption seems plausible. Could just be missing it, though.

On the SW side, what about something closer to a Github for sensor data (or analytics, transformations, etc)? If you can learn enough about/from the people that *are* dealing with with distributed sensing and decent amounts of data – about their challenges and needs – it seems like you may be able to find a platform with both single (help you with your sensors/data) and multi-player modes (here’s a network/community exploring new ways of dealing with data, combining sources, etc). It also seems like a use case with a plausible bottom-up sales model. Make rad-enough SW+community that the sensor guys at GE, etc, use it when they’re building and testing (and for their garage projects), and back into the big deals from there.

Sensors are just this massive opportunity space, and it may be easier to start with a concrete problem.

i like that idea…i fear current market size

GreenGoose (http://www.greengoose.com/) is a company that’s making super cheap sensors that can have a wide array of uses. The sensors communicate with a single base station. As for a large company that can help with distribution (aka ubiquity), Qualcomm is making some moves there. They’re starting with health: http://www.qualcommlife.com/wireless-health

FWIW, Healthsense (healthsense.com) is doing #7 in the realm of senior care. Sensors on the bed, the toilet, the refrigerator, etc. 28k sensors in the world, all battery powered, communicating using wifi. No plans to go beyond the health market at the moment, but the basic idea (sensors + cloud + analytics + market) is there …

Thanks Brian. Will check it out

You need to remember(at least in the US) not to piss off your userbase/ownerbase.
Your blenders for example. If individual consumers find out that there is a tracking tag or some sort of sensor in their blender, you’ll know exactly where all your blenders are: They’re sitting on warehouse shelves because nobody wants to buy them for fear that the sensor is somehow spying on them. Not that you can actually get a whole lot of data out of a sensor that tells you the RPMs of the motor or anything other than it’s being turned on/off, but it will be enough.

Consider on the other hand though that people are willing to upload their hear trates, blood sugar, metabolic data, etc. which are much more personal, to a random website with only OAUTH or BASICAUTH for security and no clear regulatory framework around who owns that data.

The difference: Blender tracking, as it has been conceived and attempted in practice so far, serves the large manufacturer with the assumption that the retailer/stockist and end-consumer will not know or care that their stuff is being tracked. One need only look at the history of RFID in the US to know that this is not at all the case. Health tracking, on the other hand, carries an implicit benefit for the end user.

How about instead of “Your blender is being tracked consumer unit and removal of this sensor tag is a violation of the EULA for which we’ll sue you into a smoking hole” you pitch it as “Hey, let us occasionally get some data off your blender, like how often you use it, what settings it’s mostly run at and if it looks like the motor is about to go and it’s still under warranty, we’ll send you a replacement, automatically!…just fill out this form to register it and we’ll take care of the rest…”

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at Jordan.Cooper@gmail.com (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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