Major companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft are increasingly getting into the wearable computing business. The opportunity is huge, especially for makers of MEMS based sensors, electronics, and associated software. Philippe Kahn, who created the first camera phone in 1997, is one of the pioneers in this rapidly emerging application space. Philippe’s company, Fullpower Technologies, already has its mobile sensing technology platform MotionX embedded in solutions from companies such as Nike, Jawbone, Pioneer and JVC. In this rare and exclusive interview, Philippe shares his views on the current wearable electronics challenges, emerging use cases and applications, intellectual property considerations, and market dynamics. Based on his experience as a serial technology innovator and entrepreneur, Philippe also discusses the biggest successes and failures of his career, and comments on how he believes the consumer electronics industry will develop over the next decade.
MEMS Journal: What are the top three challenges with wearable electronics today?
Philippe Kahn: We always start with innovation. Secondly, we need to make sensors smaller and more accurate. Finally, we must improve miniature batteries for wearable applications.
MEMS Journal: What are some of the most creative and original wearable electronics gadgets that you’ve seen recently?
Philippe Kahn: In the next couple of years we are about to see exciting new steps. In the medical space, it’s going to be devices that one can swallow for example, that can travel through the body and report non-invasively. On the wrist, it’s going to be devices that work jointly with smartphones and the cloud and that are smaller, more accurate, and more elegant with longer battery lives.
MEMS Journal: Regarding power supply challenges, how do you think these will be addressed in the near future?
Philippe Kahn: Power is always best attacked from multiple angles: smaller batteries, faster charging, better power management and more efficient processors and sensors as well as better algorithms. Better algorithms for wearable are critical.
MEMS Journal: What are some of the most interesting battery and power managements startups that have emerged recently?
Philippe Kahn: We’ve seen a couple of very interesting solutions under confidentiality agreements and unfortunately I can’t discuss them publicly. Let me add that our MotionX technology has a strong focus on breakthrough algorithmic power management that is “above and beyond” other solutions in the market. This applies to wearable computing applications as well as smartphones.
MEMS Journal: Many wearable devices claim to measure all sorts of metrics. How do we know that what they are claiming to measure is actually accurate? Why does this matter?
Philippe Kahn: Accuracy matters. It's clear that some products out there are not accurate. What's the point of wearing a so-called sleep monitor, if it can’t tell accurately how many times you woke up and paints a wrong picture of the quality of your sleep? What's the point of counting steps and being 20% off? Now that the market is maturing, we will start to see real objective accuracy testing and benchmarks.
MEMS Journal: Do you think consumers will notice if a device is accurate or not?
Philippe Kahn: Eventually consumers will notice and really care. For example, that's because a device like Jawbone UP is so good at sleep monitoring that it rivals with 80% of a professional medical sleep lab for day-to-day non-invasive sleep monitoring which costs around $1 million. The UP device accurately and continually monitors sleep while having a long battery life. Beyond sleep applications, accuracy matters for daytime activity monitoring as well. Let’s say that a device reports 10,000 steps a day, right on target with someone’s 10,000 step goal as prescribed by her medical practitioner. But let’s now say that the device over-counts by 20% and that this person in reality walked about 8,500 steps. She’s off her goal by 15% but doesn’t know it. There is a big difference between being off by 5% and being off by 20%. Accuracy at a reasonable level matters.
MEMS Journal: Still, if the goal is to get more people moving and becoming more active, then does it really matter much if someone takes 8,500 instead of 10,000 steps per day? And, even if a device is not very accurate, wouldn’t consumers still go for it if it was inexpensive enough?
Philippe Kahn: If people measure, they want that measurement to be reasonably accurate. That's what the "quantified self" is all about. Within 5% is reasonable. If you told a jogger that their stopwatch is 20% accurate, I don’t think that they’d be happy! Accuracy matters. Now, let's take it further -- when we monitor for example people's gait, and do it for a long enough period of time, and notice small incremental changes, we can help diagnose lower back challenges or even gout for example. For this accuracy matter a lot. Steps and sleep cycles are a coarse metric. What we do at Fullpower runs much more deeply algorithmically.
MEMS Journal: What are your thoughts about Google Glass?
Philippe Kahn: We like glasses. At Fullpower and MotionX, we started working on intelligent eyewear back in 2005 and realized that for many people who wore glasses, the choice of a frame was a fashion statement. We even had a patent issue in 2008. Given that we at Fullpower and MotionX are a technology innovator and not a fashion design company, we decided to let larger players run with that ball. Google is doing a great job and we look forward to seeing some of the wearable IP that we developed come to good use.
MEMS Journal: What do you think is the most successful wearable electronics device to date? Why?
Philippe Kahn: I think that there are probably two -- Jawbone UP and Nike FuelBand. They are simple, practical, priced attractively and people can understand what they do. It’s a first meaningful step in the advent of the “quantified self”. And we are now working on the next giant steps.
MEMS Journal: What are the top three emerging applications for wearable electronics?
Philippe Kahn: The “quantified self” starts with helping people move more and sleep better. I think that most everyone will agree with this. Coming after that are going to be a new generation of athletic tools that integrate non-invasive heart rate monitoring and other biometrics. And as a third, I'd pick Google Glass and the ability to integrate the cloud into day-today experiences. And, of course, in the medical space we love the new generation of non-invasive ingestible devices.
MEMS Journal: What will be most popular use cases for Google Glass?
Philippe Kahn: The most obvious use case that is practical is athletics -- a heads-up display with speed, distance, upcoming turns, inclines, live coaching, without the need for an external device or headset. Longer term, we had been working years ago on picking heart rate, for example, through the device frame and using MotionX algorithmic tools we developed the ability to manage stress, which practically helps people minimize it. We always felt that it was very cool, and hope that now a company such as Google, Apple or others will bring such innovative solutions to market.
MEMS Journal: Motion sensors are widely used today in wearable electronics. What types of new sensors will enter the mainstream in the next couple of years?
Philippe Kahn: The challenges for wearable electronics are that they need to be small, have long battery life and be noninvasive. Adding sensors needs to be considered carefully because size increases and battery life diminishes. Other sensors to be integrated need to be small, power-efficient and lend themselves to sensor fusion. One can dream of all sorts of 1mm by 1 mm sensors on an SPI or I2C bus! Advanced algorithms tool frameworks and complete engineering teams (not just an individual) are essential.
MEMS Journal: So, which specific sensors types will come next and why?
Philippe Kahn: I think that all sorts of sensors are interesting, including humidity, pressure, radiation, and others. But, in the end, most advances will come from classic motion, position and other sensors that are significantly smaller and more power efficient and better breakthrough algorithms and know-how. For example, three accelerometers and advanced sensor fusion algorithms in a smartphone can help make very interesting applications. For such triplication of accelerometers to be viable, we’d probably need accelerometers that are less than 1mm by 1mm in size using advanced sensor fusion algorithms and know-how.
MEMS Journal: The smartphone camera has seen a continual increase in quality and usage. What types of use cases do you see emerging in the next 2-3 years?
Philippe Kahn: First, the camera will get better at both still photos and videos in all conditions. That’s something that we all appreciate. Not necessarily more pixels. In fact, we are at a point where improvements in quality are more important than pixel count. This includes image stabilization, night vision, and other features. And, of course, there will be improvements in applications such as barcode reading, facial recognition, telemedicine, security, payments, optical recognition, and others. There is so much that we can improve significantly!
MEMS Journal: How will the medical industry be impacted by wearable electronics?
Philippe Kahn: I think that this is already happening. Devices like Jawbone UP help "Ms. and Mr. Everyone" improve their health now. Better sleep and more activity are a mantra of today’s medical community. That’s a no-brainer. Now, if users opt for it, by watching longer term trends we can notify, warn and help diagnose non-invasively early. From a purely medical device perspective, the new generation of ingestible smart pills is going to make a big difference in diagnostics and eventually interventions. In the very interesting field of personalized dosage and continual monitoring, for example in diabetes management, we will see the next generation of insulin pumps that are going to be smaller, more accurate, and less invasive. That’s almost an artificial pancreas. That’s also going to be true for pacemakers and other similar implanted devices -- the ultimate “wearable” devices.
MEMS Journal: Smartphones revolutionized personal computing during the last decade. This decade, it seems that wearable computing is driving the next wave of innovation. What do you think the following decade (e.g. the 2020s) will bring?
Philippe Kahn: My focus is on the next 7 years and the present decade. We are going to see a lot of innovation in wearable in in the next 7 years by 2020. Looking at the 2020s, it will be a time of focus in using technology, including wearable technology, for optimizing our planet’s resources and at least maintaining a reasonable lifestyle for potentially 10 billion people on our planet. The only way to solve these planetary challenges is with technology and invention. We have no choice if the human evolution is going to continue.
MEMS Journal: What do you think is the most innovative product or feature that Apple has introduced in the past year?
Philippe Kahn: I think that the new iOS7 is a big step in the right direction. It takes courage to rethink what is already excellent. Apple is an exceptional company.
MEMS Journal: Which specific features of iOS7 do you find especially impressive? Why?
Philippe Kahn: The redesign of the user experience is important. People focus too much on features. I personally think that smartphones are on the verge of too many features, crammed in a small package. Taking a reasonable functionality set and focusing on flow, usability, and design is essential. iOS7 takes a great step in this direction.
MEMS Journal: What do you think is the most innovative product or feature that Samsung has introduced in the past year?
Philippe Kahn: Samsung’s innovation is really Google’s innovation. Google is doing an extraordinary job at innovating. They are a great company. Samsung is doing a great job at leveraging Google’s innovation, Google handed Samsung a wonderful gift. But Samsung didn't fumble the ball. I actually saw a complete change in Samsung's approach to innovation in the last few months -- they seem to be now interested in partnering with innovative companies. That's a big step for a vertically integrated company such as Samsung. I think that perhaps Apple taught Samsung the true value of patents, innovation and know-how.
MEMS Journal: What makes you tick after four successful technology companies?
Philippe Kahn: I have a passion for innovation. I love building teams that invent technology and IP. I feel so privileged to make a difference and improve "Ms. and Mr. Everyone’s" life. I've learned that the "team as a whole performs", not just an individual. Like a sports team. It's a great fascinating process. It's in the end about a wonderful group of diverse, professionals where the whole is much more than the sum of the parts.
MEMS Journal: What’s the hardest thing about innovation?
Philippe Kahn: The hardest thing is to truly innovate and be discrete and “under the radar” until the right time and circumstance. Too many companies pre-announce and never really innovate. At the end it is about technology and breakthroughs.
MEMS Journal: What are you top three career successes? Why?
Philippe Kahn: First, thinking of wearable computing and sensing in 2004 and building a lot of IP that is coming to fruition now. Wearable is the next paradigm shift. We've accumulated IP that is critical to smart watches, fitness trackers, medical wearable devices, digital sport innovation and more.
Second, the camera phone for obvious reasons -- sharing that birth picture of my daughter on June 11th 1997 with 2000+ family and friends instantly was magical.
Third, learning to build great technology teams that deliver real innovation. Knowing how to do this time after time, and better each time, is something that I am very proud of. It shows with the fantastic team that we have at Fullpower and MotionX.
MEMS Journal: What are you top three career failures? Why?
Philippe Kahn: We learn more from our mistakes than our successes if we try to stay objective.
First, spending 12 years of my life as a CEO of a public company and being outside of my element. After a few years we should have hired a CEO and I should have focused on technology and innovations. I’m a mediocre sales person and that is the CEO's number one job. I love innovating, building technology teams, inventing the future, in the background, away from the limelight.
Second, selling the patents for device synchronization and the camera phone too easily and watching billions flying around in settlements. I learned that lesson and we’ve been accumulating valuable IP at Fullpower for wearable applications and are being very careful with how we manage it. I know how valuable IP is when it's coupled to real innovations and inventions.
Third, when there is a doubt, there is no doubt -- always hire the best as part of our teams. Now I am relentless at insisting to not make compromises in hires and it’s increased our progress. Because we build technology and innovation, this is critical. And it's never about one individual, it's always about the whole team. There is magic that happens.
MEMS Journal: Fullpower has several issued relevant wearable patents that cover all sorts of aspects of the wearable computing space, including sensor fusion, advanced motion sensing, eyewear, sleep monitoring and other aspects. How do you continue to innovate?
Philippe Kahn: Yes we have dozens of issued patents. We continually innovate. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. We have three times as many patents pending. These cover very important relevant aspects of hot new spaces. We benefit from having been early and prolific in this space. That's something that we are very proud about.
MEMS Journal: How do you determine which technologies to patent and which to leave as trade secrets?
Philippe Kahn: That’s an important question. And these types of decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Usually we protect with patents, but what we do is technically difficult so there are indeed a lot of trade secrets and know-how. In fact, trade secrets and know-how are formidable assets themselves. Anyone can decide to "be in a business", but these are difficult problems to solve technically and require the right teams working together.
MEMS Journal: How do you protect innovation?
Philippe Kahn: Patents are a very important aspect. But know-how and trade secrets are also critical. One thing is to have patents that protect advanced algorithmics of sleep monitoring in a wrist based device, for example, and that's great. But we also really on important aspects like the most important things are the extremely difficult practical implementation details of accurate non-invasive devices. It gets back to your remarks about accuracy, long battery life, and miniaturization. These devices are so delicate that these challenges are not solved by warehouses of engineers no matter how good. Every byte counts. It's gratifying that after a decade dominated by web marketing, the next decade is going to be dominated by know-how and technology innovation. Seriously!
This article is a part of MEMS Journal's ongoing market research project in the area of wearable computing devices and applications. If you would like to receive our comprehensive market research report on this topic, please contact Dr. Mike Pinelis at [email protected] for more information about rates and report contents.
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