Sensors Expo: Speed Dating, Dazzling Technology and Warnings
Roopinder Tara posted on July 05, 2018 |
(Image courtesy of Sensors Expo.)
(Image courtesy of Sensors Expo.)

Walking out on the show floor at the Sensors Expo, the engineering.com team finds itself adrift in a sea of electronic parts. For the uninitiated, and those who are electrically challenged, it can be difficult to distinguish one vendor from another by their products. Looking closely reveals the items as having different functions, or they distinguish themselves in their abilities to perform the same function, be it sensing pressure, proximity, temperature, acceleration, or position. But, sometimes, it is the creativity in the booth design, or the schwag, that attracts the crowds. Note to vendors: We all have plenty of pens now, thank you.

For the vendors, there may be nothing more mind-numbing than pulling booth duty when the crowd thins out. If your company has someone who can leave the booth to preach its gospel in a presentation room, you have a definite advantage. Giving a presentation makes it look like you—and your company—know what you are doing. Pay a little more to the show organizer and you can have a speed dating session with us, 10 minutes with an editor over breakfast, for example. That was our morning, on the 2nd day of the Sensors Expo.

Introverted engineers would rather walk on coals than do this damn speed dating format that seems to have become common for press at trade shows. Suck it up and take one for the publication. This will lead to coverage—or business.

Sure enough, it pays off. More business cards are exchanged here than in four hours of walking the floor. We write “speed dated” on the back of cards we receive and hope our “dates” do the same. Post show amnesia is a bitch.

Hitting the Floor

Up to 1 Watt can be transmitted via radio frequency. The LED in the foreground is picking up the energy. Future applications include gaming devices, according to Powercast.
Up to 1 Watt can be transmitted via radio frequency. The LED in the foreground is picking up the energy. Future applications include gaming devices, according to Powercast.

But it’s on the show floor that you see the actual products and technologies. Amidst booth after booth of miniature electrical components are occasional technologies that dazzle, bordering on magic.

One company transmits power through the air. Powercast transmits radio frequence (RF) energy which can be received on power devices. You could be in the RF beam with your virtual reality (VR) gaming device and play forever, wirelessly. Game on!

“The [Federal Communications Commission] limits us to 1 Watt,” laments Rich Deneen, Sales Engineer at Powercast. “It may be out of concern for human safety,” we venture. Too much power at the wrong frequency can cook an individual.

Do not confuse this with contact charging mats that leading-edge techies are already using for their cell phones. Contact charging may be quicker, but you have to be in contact.

“It’s physics,” say the PowerCast guys. Inverse square law: power decreases by a square of the distance.

Keynote: Microsoft

Marc Pollefeys, Director of Science, delivers a keynote about the HoloLens.
Marc Pollefeys, Director of Science, delivers a keynote about the HoloLens.

Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella (not at the conference), is pinning his hope of making his company cool again on three different technologies. The cloud offering (Azure) has taken off and is providing the company with a nice boost in revenue. The Microsoft Surface Pro, everywhere at this conference and others, is apparently a hit, as well. The $3,000 HoloLens is being pushed as the smart eye/headware of the future. Onstage for the keynote is Marc Pollefeys, Microsoft’s Director of Science. For the first time, we are seeing the internals of their head-mounted augmented reality (AR) device. An exploded view shows a boatload of sensors. 

The Microsoft HoloLens includes multiple servers: one IMU (inertial measurement unit), six cameras, including 2MP photo and HD video, mixed reality capture, four microphones and one ambient light sensor. (Image courtesy of Cadence.)
The Microsoft HoloLens includes multiple servers: one IMU (inertial measurement unit), six cameras, including 2MP photo and HD video, mixed reality capture, four microphones and one ambient light sensor. (Image courtesy of Cadence.)

The HoloLens has a very small battery. Remember, you have to wear the entire 0.58 KG (1.3 lb) HoloLens on your head, so weight is critical. This is twice the weight of a bike racing helmet.

The HoloLens, called the future of computing by Nadella, is really the only well-known AR, VR or mixed reality device that is totally self-contained. No “digital ponytail;” in other words, the wires that keep VR users on a short leash, tethered to their workstations. You can walk around freely, see what is not yet real along with what is, all without tripping over wires and killing yourself. Microsoft, to its credit, has managed to fit an entire, powerful computer in a headset. And, although larger than what would be consider cool on the street, it does represent the state of the art in AR.

The presenter was besieged by fans afterwards.

IoT Times a Hundred

Urban agriculture sensor kit by SensorInsight. (Picture courtesy of SensorInsight.)
Urban agriculture sensor kit by SensorInsight. (Picture courtesy of SensorInsight.)

Sensor products and companies are enjoying a renaissance, thanks mainly to surge of interest in the Internet of Things. IoT, one of the most buzzed buzzwords in product design, starts with sensors. See our research report, IoT Features in New Product Development. All manner of sensors is now wildly popular. About the show floor are old-school electronics components salespersons suddenly at the forefront of demand, riding the IoT wave that has formed under them.

One presenter, veteran of a hundred IoT projects, is embarrassed of the success. “I’m going to stop using ‘IoT,’” says Sensorlight Co-Founder and President Joey Bernal. "It's all about sensors, it always has been.”

Indeed, sensors of various forms and function have been in use, monitoring machinery, industrial processes, and more long before IoT became a thing. New communication technologies, some of them web-based with cloud storage and faster processors, have made more products connected and smarter, more usable, friendlier, more life-saving. For example, there are sensors in your poor dementia-suffering relative’s house that alert you to when they open the front door for another walk around the neighborhood.

“A totally monitored home—we’re working with the state of Delaware, and hoping to roll it out in more places,” says Joey. While most engineers are vexed about starting their first IoT project, Joey and his company SensorInsight have a hundred. The company sells an IoT starter kit that can have an IoT project up and running in very little time.

SensorInsight has its roots in IBM, which has its well known Predix IoT platform. “But we deal with companies that can’t afford hundreds of thousands of dollars for an IBM solution,” says Joey. 

IBM commended Joey’s work with its Beacon Award in 2016, having helped Kenya and Ethiopia with water monitoring.

Another SensorInsight initiative is agricultural. “Please don’t call it ‘precision agriculture,’” he requests, preferring “data-driven agriculture” instead. Sensors in the ground detect moisture, also “plant stress,” with sensors pinned to leaves and visual indicators of droop, and can show it all on a dashboard, which SensorInsight specializes in creating.

Lest we give the impression that SensorInsight is a charitable organization whose only intent is helping humanity, another product application involves golf courses. Apparently, the hardness of the ground—affected by its moisture—is very important to the game. Surprise: golf clubs have so little money that the company has decided to serve them no longer. One must wonder what golf clubs are doing with membership and annual fees that can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Security

Security, like backup, is the last thing on anyone’s mind. But, when things go wrong, like a hack or data loss, its importance jumps immediately to the fore.

With every company heading full speed towards the cloud, streaming data for IoT—including consumer, industrial and military applications—the news has had no shortage of compromised data.

The most infamous case, never admitted by the US, was the Stuxnet virus that sent Iran’s centrifuges, and its uranium enrichment processing, into a tailspin. But San Francisco’s transit system has also been hacked. Consumer devices, in a hurry to be IoT-ized, have been compromised due to loose security protocols.

Alex Lim, of LDRA-US, suggests we be a little more careful, but admits that the urge to be more secure happens only after catastrophic security breaches. His talk is sparsely attended. It is the near the end of the day. And a big security breach has not just happened.

LDRA must be patient. Fast-moving, venture-capital-fund-seeking startups may not immediately seek locked down communications, but with increasing use comes more temptation, bigger targets. LDRA’s time will come. With less than a tenth-of-one percent of all cars being driverless at the moment, it makes no sense for bad guys to target them. But when self-driving cars become commonplace, what a target they will make. Can they be hacked and stolen, or worse?

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