Monday, 1 July 2013

Information that products can transmit

I wrote yesterday on what I want from a battery charger, which touched on the subject of what information products can collect and transmit. It's a very broad topic, but fundamentally only limited by the following factors:

  • available sensors
  • available transmitters
  • power for sensors and transmitters
  • storage of data (prior to transmission)
  • cost (of the above, and of bandwidth)
  • value of the data to the manufacturer
  • consumer acceptance
So let's take another example product: the electric shaver. Probably the first most important sensor is a clock, allowing the frequency of use, time of day and duration of use to be captured. This might be supplemented by a gyroscope to measure the angles the shaver is moved through during use. And perhaps also a GPS sensor assess whether it's used as a travelling shaver, or just one left at home. Other data collected could include what buttons are pressed and when, charging patterns, and potentially data on component failure. From a transmitter point-of-view, wifi and Bluetooth are obvious and ubiquitous (and typically free at point of use), but these do require input from users, so perhaps a cellular network chip would be a better alternative. Obviously a shaver already has power (either from the wall or battery), so this is only an issue in that it might drain the battery faster. A clock  is so cheap to implement that it's immaterial to the cost of the device. The storage (a few megabytes of ssd) is also pretty low cost, as is the cellular chip and bandwidth. So in conclusion for a shaver, basic monitoring is doable from a technology and cost point of view. The only remaining issues are the value of the data to the manufacturer, and consumer acceptance. The value of the data is probably fairly low, but as the cost of the components drop and drop, this the value relative to cost will tend to increase. Consumer acceptance is a whole discussion in itself.

The electric shaver proved a fairly easy product to analyse from a product self-reporting point-of-view. So let's try something a little more challenging: a tube of toothpaste. The obvious challenge here is the absence of power. However, that's not necessarily a show-stopper due to cheap disposable solar cells, piezoelectric generators and passive near-field communication. So what could be measured? Time again is an important one, with the other key metric being degree of deformation of the tube or the degree that the sides of tube touch each other (both being proxies for the amount of toothpaste left in the tube). Although there might be enough power to collect and record the data, sufficient data to power a wifi or Bluetooth chip is unlikely. However, with a near filed communication chip, the communication could occur to a smartphone when in range, and then the data would be passed onwards to the manufacturer via the internet.

If it's possible to do it with a tube of toothpaste, it should be possible with just about any product. Bring on the Internet of Things.

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