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A View of the Future: Demo 2014

I attended Demo in Silicon Valley last week and, as always, it showcased things likely to mature in the market 12 to 14 months into the future. The presenters are small companies, hand-selected because they offer something unique and forward-looking.

You have to feel a bit sorry for the folks making the presentations because they have to be as well-rehearsed as an actor doing a show, but they only give their talk once. I feel even more sorry for the folks doing the actual demonstrations, because they have one shot to do this right, and often the god of technology exhibits his or her sense of humor and something doesn’t work.

This year there was a showcase of products that could redefine home automation, drones, emergency rooms, and even how you buy clothing. I’ll share some observations on all of that and close with my product of the week: the amazing DJI Inspire 1 personal drone.

Umbrela – The Next Age of Home Automation

I’ve been covering home automation and using it since the late 1970s, and it generally has been a very disappointing experience. New products often don’t work as well as the clapper (the old gadget that turned lights on and off when you clapped).

Current state of the art is Insteon, which has more sensors, hubs, security cameras and accessories than any other line, and it is what I have in my own homes. Another product class I use broadly is Sonos, because it moves music around the home better than any other brand, and even Cisco couldn’t do a better job.

What Umbrela (spelled with one “l”) appears to do is combine what Insteon and Sonos do. It integrates music and traditional home automation with voice commands, so that the lights and music can work better together — automatically adjusting the lighting for your entertainment, and creating an even better simulation of folks being at home when they are not.

Umbrela uses a central animated touchscreen panel and an intuitive touch interface, and the result has the potential of merging Sonos and Insteon, with the only apparent risk being that after seeing this, Insteon and Sonos might start talking and create a better result themselves.

In any case, I think Umbrela accurately showcases where this market will be in 24 months with a greater integration of media distribution and traditional home automation in offerings that emerge in that time window.

Healium – or Why We Hate Google Glass

The Healium demo was pretty sad, really, because this product uses Google Glass, which crashed right at the start. That led the presenter and one of the judges to argue that Glass, which was supposed to revolutionize wearable technology, was effectively dead due to a lack of Google interest.

Healium is designed to run on a head- mounted display (apparently other than Google Glass from here on) and give medical professionals advice or answer their questions in real time as they deal with crisis-level life threatening emergency room cases.

Users would be able to see checklists, ask questions and get visual answers, view patent records, and potentially even see pictures of what they should be doing as they are dealing with crisis after crisis. This integration of technology into a head-mounted display is being explored in a wide variety of areas, with healthcare one of the fastest to adopt it. (My first test with a head-mounted display was a US$25K unit sold by Sony a decade ago to the healthcare market.)

I expect that within 36 months, if you go into a well-funded hospital you’ll see pretty much everyone who has direct contact during an operation will have some form of wearable display networked back into a knowledge base and often internetworked with each other, to ensure your next procedure will be both more successful and less risky than it would be today.

LikeAGlove – Personalized, Tailored Online Clothing

Sensors are being placed in everything we touch and see, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that folks are using them to make clothing. When you put onLikeAGlove, it then records your measurements more accurately than a tailor can today. These measurements can then be fed to the Web so that a service can create clothing that fits you better than anything you could possibly buy off the rack.

The wealthiest already can afford to have everything they buy — from formal clothes to T-Shirts and jeans — tailor made to fit perfectly. LikeAGlove would allow the rest of us to have a better experience at prices similar to what we’d pay for off-the-rack garments.

While the sensor placement in clothing is likely less workable than a device that either scanned you or that could be used more flexibly to take a variety of measurements, the idea of using sensors in this way has a great deal of merit. I’m already seeing some of the scanners that have been developed for 3D scanning being considered for uses like this.

However we get there, I expect that within 36 months we’ll have a large number of online clothing retailers offering something like LikeAGlove, and those of us who use these services not only will look better than those who don’t — because our clothes will fit better — but also may be wearing clothing of our own personal design. We’ll also likely find that, as designers, we suck.

Curb – Energy Management

Those of us who have solar power capability on our homes have a problem: We need to manage consumption, but the tools we are given don’t work very well. Sometimes we feel rather lucky if they work at all.

I’m currently having to replace my inverters for a cost of nearly $5K just to get better monitoring. Curb appears to be a vastly simpler energy management solution. Comprehensive and easy to install, it promises a far deeper look into what is consuming the most power and help figuring out what it is you need to do to lower your power bills.

While I’m impressed with what it can do, I also think a full solution would provide advice on what you need to do to better conserve energy.

Saving money remains a big driver in every home, though, and an affordable way to determine where money is being wasted — one that is easy to install and easy to use, but not very expensive — meets an important need. With gas prices dropping and Republicans trending to take over the government, focus on energy savings and things like solar power likely will decline in the short term. In the long term, though, we’ll eventually have to solve the problems that remain.

How fast solutions like Curb reach the mainstream will depend on a combination of need and focus. If focus remains high, we’ll likely have critical mass in products in this class in 24 months; if interest drops sharply, 56 months may be more likely — but we’ll get there, certainly by the end of the decade.

Top Flight Technologies – Gas Isn’t Dead Yet

Drones are one of the big product areas this year, and they are moving broadly across the market from the military, to hobbyists, to law enforcement, to product delivery, and even to first responders.

The problem with electric-powered products is that flight time is measured in minutes and carry weight is very limited. Top Flight Technologies’ core offering is a drone powered by a small gas generator that can be installed in a multi-rotor electrical drone. The result is a drone that can fly for hours, carry a decent payload, and be used more effectively by law enforcement, for product deliveries, and for first responder robotic medical help than current battery-powered options.

We are already up to our armpits in drones, and the FAA isn’t amused. Unfortunately, it currently is acting mostly to block the use of drones, and it isn’t yet moving aggressively to figure out how to help folks to get them to work. In short, the regulation, as usual, is moving far slower than the industry and creating a significant drag.

There is no doubt that by 2025, many of our package deliveries, as well as much of our law enforcement protection, and even emergency care will be provided by drones. This could happen far more quickly if the FAA got its act together, and it is technologies like Top Flight Technologies’ generator that will enable this.

Wrapping Up

Having lights, appliances and music move to our whims in an automated fashion, having our doctors become far less error-prone and far more capable, our clothing more customized and better fitting, our energy bills lower, and having little flying robots that both serve and protect will be our future by 2025.

The world will be more virtual and far more automated, although likely both far less private and far safer than the world is today.

It is shows like Demo that can give us a feel for this future and help us get ready and maybe even derive more benefits from this future world. Given that it is coming regardless, we might as well benefit from it. The alternative — pretending the changes aren’t occurring — never has worked that well.

Product of the Week: DJI Inspire 1 Drone

Product of the Week

We are up to our armpits in drones, but the DJI Inspire 1 Drone stands above the rest when it comes to capability. DJI’s Phantom Series is currently the most popular hobbyist drone line in the market, and if you see someone flying a drone at a park or event, it is likely to be one of those.

At just under $3K, this isn’t a cheap date but with high flying speeds and an optional follow me capability on spec — something you’ll likely see in virtually all high-end personal drones next year — the Inspire 1 provides the best picture and the greatest range from a known brand in the segment.

DJI Inspire1

DJI Inspire1

While I personally am more likely to buy the far less expensive Phantom II Vision+ (typically about a third of the price), the Inspire sets the benchmark for features and capability in a drone, and I recommend starting with it in order to determine the features and capabilities you absolutely need and those you can give up.

Both ground sensing and GPS positioning help you fly and recover the drone should you lose signal (it will automatically return to you). It has a range of up to a mile, a downward-firing 4K camera, and the ability to chase you up to 50 miles per hour — all critical to many drone users today. I often pick products I lust after for this segment, and I really lust for the DJI Inspire 1 Drone.

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends. You can connect with him on Google+.

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