Networking the home, intelligently, for smarter technology

Machine-to-machine, or M2M, technology is about to go big. We talk with Aricent about how it impacts the home of the future, and why it needs to be designed for humans to work.

So you've got a smarter grid. Now what?

East Brunswick, N.J.-based Aricent has been working on wireless sensor networks for that enable smart parking, home energy management, industrial automation and more.

Most recently, the company's focus has been on the Home Area Network, a platform through which the homeowner can remotely manage energy usage, security, appliances and entertainment systems.

I spoke with Steve Manuel, associate vice president for corporate marketing, and Tim Morey, director of business and technology consulting, about what "machine-to-machine," or M2M, technology spells for the home of the future -- and why it needs to be designed for humans to work.

SmartPlanet: So, Aricent -- not really a household name. What do you do?

SM: Aricent is a pretty well-kept secret. It's a half a billion company, founded about four years ago. Our mission as a company is to co-create, so we don't actually brand any of our products.

For us, user innovation and experience trumps speeds and feeds. Our main customer segments are communications service providers, device manufacturers and network infrastructure folks.

What we provide to these folks is some intellectual property -- licensed software, from handset features to switching and routing protocol software -- and the professional services that help bring these products to market: innovation, consulting, design, development, testing, deployment and operations.

For example, we created One Click for Sprint's feature phones. We build enabling software for multimedia features for the smartphone market, which needs integration with hardware and chipsets. The industry doesn't track the sub-system providers.

SmartPlanet: We're moving toward a world of connected "things." Where does Aricent fit in, beyond smartphone tech?

TM: My team does a lot of product strategy consulting. Is there a "there" there? Is there money to be made? What kind of business model is needed? We get to see the different projects.

We're at an inflection point, driven by the dropping cost of communications. Every consumer electronic device -- things that cost more than $20 -- will have an IP address and a radio. That starts to change the entire world and how you interact with it.

We already have this layer of data over the physical world, using GPS coordinates and the web, but we're going to see this huge explosion in chirping endpoints that give information. Making sense of all that information is where our clients are placing bets.

We did a study this year for one of the tech majors who wanted to understand in a home setting what happens when you put 30 to 50 sensors in the home -- temperature, motion, light and so forth. Those home automation devices, they're still fairly contained.

For example, I might know that it's hotter in a certain room in the house at a certain time of day, but to coordinate that with the fact that it's November and it's OK to be warm, putting analytics on that takes huge amounts of work.

We evaluate the readiness of the market, do a bottoms-up market model, find out where the money is. In the second phase, they come back and ask us to build a home energy management system.

People come to us because they lack a part of the equation. Often, it's the communications piece. A lot of companies are good at designing products, but not making them communicate.

The other part is the user and consumer experience piece. A lot of home energy products are crap. If you're an eco-warrior, you would use it. But the next 60 percent, who are green-friendly and would do something if it's not too taxing…they won't.

Modern products are complicated. Twenty years ago -- I see this a lot in medical devices, where they're experts at biomechanics but not communications -- you didn't even see this.

Take a heart attack sensor for arrhythmia -- the company behind it may be very good at detecting a heart attack, knowing what it looks like, but not good at taking that information and moving it from the sensor to the network and up to a computer that can do something with it.

The cost of this stuff now is so low is that everything is becoming a connected endpoint.

SmartPlanet: In what area are you seeing the most traction?

TM: Automotive is a huge one. We've done a lot of work with U.S. and Asian automakers on connected stuff -- routine maintenance that gives you longer, better guarantees. The second is infotainment -- who provides the bandwidth? Do you pay another $1,000 for that over a lifetime, or do you bring your cell phone -- and carriers are looking at this -- and tether as a hub?

The other big divide is between cellular M2M and "other" M2M. In the home, it's not clear that this is a cellular application. A lot of major appliances will be connected for servicing -- that will be the manufacturer's goal, and it allows them to maintain connection with the consumer and up-sell them. It also allows them to lower the cost of support.

Then there's home energy management. You can't just put a smart plug into a wall and have an actuator to shut it off -- that will screw up a lot of televisions and DVRs. You need a "soft" power down.

But I think the moneymaker in this market will end up being security. Sixteen million people already pay $30 a month for ADT or some other type of security.

SmartPlanet: So, to come full circle, you're saying that Aricent helps connect the dots in a connected world.

TM: Or working on the experience. How do you make this unthreatening, accessible and user friendly and not spooky? It's making the networked home adapt to you without the consumer having to become the CIO of their home.

For connected appliances, it should stay faded in the background. I don't want to have an "experience" with my fridge, or my stove. But if I get a text message saying that I need to service my appliance, that's cool.

The challenge for user experience is to make it something that you want to do, not something that is tiresome and painful. The universal remote is kind of the nightmare experience right now.

The products right now around energy are all charts and diagrams. That's good for Silicon Valley, but it's not good for most consumers. Energy is boring. My kids don't want to look at bar graphs of energy use.

There's a whole gaming mechanism going on right now that makes it kind of fun. But where we want to take this is to move it away from infographic paradigms and make it more natural and easy to comprehend and fade into the background.

It's not some big in-your-face power meter that sends you a text message to change your wash. That's just irritating.

Our design arm [Frog Design] hosted a design think-in session in October addressing the question, will the smart meter become the consumer face of the [cleantech] revolution? Now it's the anti-thing. Where's the value? But we think this stuff is important -- it enables a whole slew of great things that will have a positive impact on our environment and our era. We need to find a way to bring this to consumers.

Smart meter has become a boo word. It's a shame. The industry only gets a chance to do this once every generation.

SmartPlanet: So how do you steer companies into improving their consumer offerings?

TM: It's not just what is feasible or what is cool or what makes money, it's what makes sense and at the heart of it is the consumer journey -- what are they trying to achieve?

Technology is a huge part of this. Instead of telling me that I've consumed 10 percent less power this month, tell me a suggestion: "Tim, shut all the blinds before you go to work." That's an actionable suggestion.

How do you get people to behave the way you want? What are the incentives, the sticks and carrots?

SmartPlanet: You've got an interesting role in all of this. Who does Aricent compete with?

TM: The competition question is something I think about a lot. Very few companies do this. We're I2M -- innovation or ideas to market.

If I look across that lifecycle, we compete against design firms, market research firms, product strategy firms. And as we get into the developing piece, Wipro and HCL and other firms. There's nobody of our scale.

And it helps us do better work, because if the designers know they're sitting next to the engineer, they're not going to design something that can't be built.

SmartPlanet: What area of you business do you consider holding the most promise?

TM: Medical devices and health. The whole lifetracking movement. I run and use an iPhone app to map my runs. I have colleagues that track sleep and diet and all that.

On the regulated side, there's a whole slew of devices that track your health and wellbeing. That moves to independent living stuff -- my Dad lives in England, but with these types of tools I'll be able to tell that he's moved about today.

Another intriguing one we worked on was a pill bottle that sends a message or Tweet or whatever to make sure you're taking your medication. Drug companies have a vested interest in this. And it's a really interesting design experience -- there's no user interface; it's just a lid.

Beyond that, there's this idea of a services platform -- all the carriers are really interested in working this out, because how you deploy masses of these connected things when they're not like a phone that you're going to spend $50 or $70 a month guaranteed?

Take that pill bottle -- if you ever have a support call, you've completely blown the use case.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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