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Connected Homes March 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Kyle M. Whitman

Mesh-Network Mobilization

By Michael Gold
Gold is a senior research engineer specializing in innovations in digital technologies and their impacts on businesses, governments, and individuals.

Why is this topic significant?

Mesh networks are important to a relatively small but significant segment of households. Visions of many connected everyday objects likely rest on mesh networking, but mass-market development continues to await improved compatibility with offerings from Apple, Nest, and other key brands.

Description

A niche of households makes use of smartphones to control, automate, and monitor connected devices, including door locks, security sensors, and other gadgets that rely on Z-Wave, ZigBee, and other mesh-network protocols. Such protocols are key to eliminating need for AC power (for example, for door locks, smoke detectors, and thermostats) and enabling the use of small batteries that help keep costs low and package sizes small and that last for months to years without needing replacement or recharging. Technology suppliers intend for users to be able to add, drop, move, and upgrade mesh-network devices easily as needs and wants arise.

No available phone, tablet, or computer communicates directly with low-power mesh networks, nor do the great majority of set-top boxes, wireless routers, and broadband modems. Users increasingly monitor and control diverse mesh-networked devices in a home using dedicated, AC-powered, cloud-connected, router-like boxes that can concurrently support both Z-Wave and ZigBee, and that communicate in the cloud with available companion mobile apps that can concurrently run on both Android and iOS devices. At least four competing suppliers provide US-based users with such boxes and apps. The suppliers (and their devices) are D-Link (Staples Connect), Lowes (Iris), Quirky (Wink Hub), and Samsung (SmartThings Hub).

Implications

Mesh protocols are important because their low-power operation enables the possibility of connecting many everyday objects without demanding that users devote much attention to battery maintenance. Thus, stakeholders who take the idea of connected things seriously must take mesh networking seriously as well.

Apple currently provides no support for Z-Wave and ZigBee protocols other than allowing its App Store to distribute apps created by the companies I mention above and those companies' partners. Among other implications, this means that Siri cannot monitor and control most mesh-network devices as of early March 2015. Some early adopters of new technologies are hoping such control becomes available soon, but the timing of such a development remains uncertain.

Impacts/Disruptions

Developments I discuss above indicate there is no longer any substantial technical obstacle to the supply of connected things that are broadly compatible with one another. That said, opposing competitive strategies still appear to prevent compatibility. Notably, Siri cannot monitor and control Nest's devices, which use Nest's proprietary mesh technology. Additional mesh-networking technologies that are candidates to see improved multivendor compatibility include Insteon and WeMo.

Among the hubs that are compatible with both Z-Wave and ZigBee, apparently only Iris charges monthly fees. Only various optional Iris services require such fees, but nevertheless SmartThings and Wink appear to be outselling Iris. Early adopters appear unlikely to be willing to pay any recurring charges to connect one device to another within a home or from home to a mobile device, beyond the charges they already pay for fixed and mobile broadband service.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Electronics manufacturing, semiconductors, appliance manufacturing, web services, mobile communications, illumination, home security, sensors, actuators, medicine

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Streaming Game Services

By Michael Gold
Gold is a senior research engineer specializing in innovations in digital technologies and their impacts on businesses, governments, and individuals.

Why is this topic significant?

Worldwide, people spend more than $100 billion annually on electronic-game hardware and software. Streaming games have the potential to gain an increased share of the market for electronic-game software and to influence hardware purchases.

Description

Streaming-game services use distant servers to render game video and transmit that video across networks to end-user devices. In contrast, the vast majority of video games created since the 1970s run on a device that is local to a user. Suppliers are increasing efforts toward development of streaming-game services.

Sony has been offering à la carte streaming rentals of PS3 games on its PS4 consoles since mid-2014, and the company introduced subscriptions during January 2015. Nvidia introduced a beta version of its Grid game-streaming service in late 2014. In May the company will launch a mass-market version of the service. Shield, Nvidia's streaming-compatible console, will also reportedly be available in May for some $200. Nvidia will distribute at least some top-tier game titles; of course, availability of compelling content is critical to game-platform market development.

Technical performance is likely to be another critical factor; the challenges of minimizing delays and video-compression artifacts have impeded market development in the past. During mid-2014, Microsoft Research revealed its Outatime (formerly DeLorean) technology for potentially overcoming these challenges. The Outatime server speculatively renders several possible frames of video, and the client device selects one of those renderings in accord with users' actual game-controller inputs. Microsoft asserts that Outatime overcomes the limits of networks having up to one-quarter second of delay.

Start-up OnLive launched its service during 2009, but technical performance challenges and a dynamic competitive environment have caused the company to struggle. OnLive remains in operation.

Implications

Streaming expands the range of places where people can play games, and it potentially provides instant gratification with no downloading time. Yet even with improvements to the quality of streaming-game experiences, such games can never deliver maximum-available-quality graphics and minimum-response-time "twitch" control over games. The quality of experience is acceptable to some users and not acceptable to others. Even so, updated technology will improve that experience and expand the base of users who adopt streaming games.

Impacts/Disruptions

In theory, a smart TV can render game animations and relay user inputs from controllers, enabling users to enjoy big-screen streaming games with no set-top box and reducing the need to purchase additional hardware. The potential base of users for such games could thus increase very dramatically, eventually including all smart-TV owners worldwide.

Many innovations, not just streaming, are in the pipeline for the games market, which is seeing historic shifts from games that run on portable consoles to smartphone and tablet games, a growing share of nonstreaming games that are distributed electronically instead of in packaged media, and major business-model innovations such as rentals and subscriptions. Suppliers are also introducing Android consoles, PC gaming on beyond-high-definition displays, and tiny PCs for use as game-centric set-top boxes. These innovations might have synergies with streaming games—or they could become preoccupations that overshadow and disrupt efforts to develop markets for streaming games.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Game retailing; electronics research, development, and manufacturing; web services; broadband-access services

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: