Can Japan get her groove back with IoT?

Technology News |
By eeNews Europe

If last week’s conference programs and exhibits at Embedded Technology 2014 show here were any indication, Japan’s M2M, HEMS, and Echonet Lite programs have been rebranded as a part of the IoT effort.

In the late 1990s, NTT Docomo talked about how the communication traffic of the future would be driven by machines calling up other machines (M2M) to help humans without human involvement.

Backed by the Japanese government, Japanese companies established Echonet (later, Echonet Lite), communication protocols for linking appliances made by different manufacturers — a decade before the emergence of Apple’s HomeKit and Google’s Thread.

Positioning Echonet as the linchpin of the smart home initiative, Japan earnestly pursued the idea of energy management. That was, of course, well before Google bought Nest.

Last week, Japanese exhibitors, whole-heartedly embracing IoT and its technology building blocks, were busy showing solutions bridging the old and new.

One company pitched a bridge device between HomeKit and Echonet. Another unveiled a simplified wireless platform "with 920MHz wireless module and Echonet wireless module adopter," intended to link home appliances and sensors. Exhibits pitching Wi-SUN — low-power, wireless utility products based on IEEE 802.15.4g — were everywhere.

Yamabiko is a 'bridge device' between Apple's HomeKit and Japan's Echonet

Yamabiko is a "bridge device" between Apple’s HomeKit and Japan’s Echonet

Another notable development at this year’s show was the makers’ movement — an unmistakable global trend in IoT. Macnica, a Japanese distributor, is one of the most aggressive IoT promoters for "makers" in Japan. The company exhibited a number of easy-to-construct IoT kits, using chips from Broadcom, Texas Instruments, Analog Devices, or Silicon Labs, branded as "mPression."

Renesas was a no-show on the show floor. But other Japanese IT giants, Toshiba, NEC and Fujitsu trotted out "IoT" solutions –ranging from software and applications to data network and servers.

Japanese distributor Macnica showcased a number of IoT solutions branded as Mpression. The little guy above is a communication robot – called Bocco – designed to let you know the sensor information at home, even when you are out. It can also send/receive voice messages.

Let’s do mesh network with WiFi

In a smart building, mesh network is the way to go. Murata showed off "Murata Mesh Network Solution" at its booth, touting "reliable and scalable communication over WiFi." Asked why it’s not using ZigBee, a Murata official pointed to a smartphone on a display table. "You want to control the network with a smartphone, but there’s no ZigBee inside the phone."

Murata offers a small WiFi module for this mesh network solution. But of course, its Achilles heel is WiFi’s power consumption. Fully aware of this, Murata is offering a small WiFi module attached to a solar-powered power supply (shown below).

It’s all about HEMS

The Japanese government and Japanese industry have long touted the Home Energy Management System (HEMS). They pitched it for years before IoT became cool, or Google’s Nest and Apple’s HomeKit came along.

In a typical Japanese Embedded Technology show, you’d inevitably find a dollhouse or block diagram, fully equipped with miniature solar panels, air-conditioning equipment and home appliances. All these units are designed to talk among themselves and cooperate to manage energy use.

The government originally backed Echonet, the home-networking standard based on power-line communication (PLC); later, the government backed Echonet-Lite — communication protocols established for home appliances used in the smart house — independent of "phy." Naturally, the Japanese industry followed along.

Shown here is a "simplified wireless platform" with 920MHz wireless module and Echonet-Lite middleware adopter pitched by NEC Engineering. Originally designed for HEMS, it’s now described as "also applicable to M2M and IoT."

Don’t forget to bring your umbrella!

Your smartphone knows that it is going to rain this afternoon (using weather map apps). A little tag attached to your umbrella gets the alert (via Bluetooth), starts blinking a light, and reminds you to take the umbrella along.

This might become popular only in Japan (where locals — who don’t drive to work but use public transportation — hate getting wet). But it’s one of many cute ideas enabled by the makers’ movement in Japan. Inside the tag, called "Pick," is a tiny board, called "Koshian," designed by Macnica. The board is integrated with Broadcom Bluetooth Smart SiP, BCM207375.

Tag it!

Fujitsu Advanced Engineering demonstrated an ultra-thin sensor device that can be worn on a person, or attached to goods in a warehouse.

No, it’s not NFC. By using sensors, the tag can sense the conditions of a person or an object, whether at home, in a dangerous construction site, in a warehouse, or in transit. The more sensors, the more data.

The tag is using a very thin lithium-ion battery developed by FDK. In a package integrated with sensors and Bluetooth Low Energy, it’s only 2.2mm thick.

The weakness is battery life. It lasts only six days when its beacon transmits signals every second. If programmed to signal only every 60 seconds, the battery can last 20 days. The battery is currently designed for non-rechargeable one-time-use. FDK is working on a rechargeable version, according to Fujitsu.

Augmented reality comes to Tokyo Olympics?

Leveraging combined forces of technologies by Toshiba and Fujitsu, Toshiba demonstrated a pair of wearable glasses made by Epson. Toshiba is responsible for enabling augmented reality content, while Fujitsu is doing client-and-server solutions. Acknowledging that the wearable glasses need to be more lightweight, a Toshiba official explained that they are hoping that AR content will make wearable glasses more effective and useful. "Think about all the relevant information and helpful tips tourists can get when they visit the Tokyo Olympics!" he said.

AR content superimposed when wearing the glasses

AR content superimposed when wearing the glasses

Log your baby’s activities

Wrapped around on an infant’s ankle, the baby band automatically measures its movements, activities, and temperature, and sends the data via Bluetooth Low Energy to your smartphone. The band consists of Bluetooth Low Energy module, coin battery, accelerometer, humidity/temperature sensor, and IR temperature sensor.

The gadget shown above is a "logging tool" to keep a record of your baby’s activities. To keep a log, the user simply pushes different buttons. For the novice caretaker, it might be useful.

All the information — when the baby was last fed, how long she slept, and in what conditions (humidity, temperature, etc.) — are recorded and uploaded to your smartphone. The device can even remind you when the baby is due for a diaper change, a ride in a stroller, a nap, or a feeding.

Battery-free sensor module

Spansion showed off a so-called battery-free sensor module. It consists of Texas Instruments’ temperature sensor, Fujitsu’s ultra-compact Bluetooth Low Energy modules using Nordic Semiconductor’s ultra-low power SoC, and Spansion’s ultra-low voltage boost power management IC.

Of course, for all those electronics inside the sensor module to function, they need power. In this case, Spansion’s PMIC is the key, harvesting solar energy. It can charge a Li-ion battery with a single solar cell and a multi-junction solar cell or thermal electric generator.

Smart farms

After smart homes, smart buildings, and smart factories, the next big thing, of course, is smart agriculture. ST created a miniature farm, showing the company’s sensor platform, with a wireless access point and a number of multi-sensor nodes. End nodes can be attached to trees or fence posts. They sense temperature, humidity, wind, other information, and send it to the access point.

Smart tag uses multiple wireless solutions including Bluetooth Low Energy, WiFi, and Sub-GHz networks.

RF smart agriculture, as proposed by ST, shows a countryside gone totally wireless. The future farmer will know what’s going on with his chickens and pigs from the comfort of his living room.


Smart toothbrush

Smart toothbrush talking to your smartphone

Smart toothbrush talking to your smartphone

Move over, dental hygienist. Your next toothbrush can be the consumer’s coach, letting you know how badly (or how well) you’re brushing your teeth. Embedded in the OralB toothbrush shown here is Texas Instruments’ sensor module, allowing your smart toothbrush to communicate with your smartphone. The app will tell you how many more minutes you should keep brushing and which teeth are the cruddiest.

Chip-scale atomic clock

Core Corp., a Tokyo-based embedded technology company, demonstrated an M2M/IoT board featuring a chip-scale atomic clock, designed to generate accurate time-stamping. The board’s hardware architecture is optimized for the chip-scale atomic clock, said the Japanese company. The board consists of a CPU core based on ARM Cortex A9 with Neon, chip-scale atomic clock, GPS, Ethernet, Xilinx Spartan-6, 3-axis accelerometer and temperature sensor, 64MB SDRAM, 16MB serial flash, and others. The board has expansion slots for WiFi, Bluetooth, and Wi-SUN.

In order to detect structural changes in bridges and buildings, execute accurate analysis and get early warnings, accurate time-stamping is crucial, according to the company.

IoT Application development made easy

Texas Instruments is promoting a sensor tag shown above, housed in red. The red unit is in essence "an evaluation board" loaded with multiple sensors (seven, to be exact), making it easy for users to explore the potential of their next IoT device applications.

The board and software, priced at 5,000 yen in Japan, is now being distributed to students, according to a TI official. "We start early to turn students into TI fans." TI is making public the source code of the software designed for its sensor tag.

Racing for a sensor fusion market

Now that some of the leading smartphone companies are turning to a separate sensor fusion chip to do sensor data-processing, many chip vendors are seeing a new avenue to tap the huge smartphone market. Lapis Semiconductor, formerly Oki’s chip company before being acquired by Japan’s Rohm, is one.

The company showed off a tiny microcontroller (based on ARM Cortex-M0) designed to collect signals from accelerometer, gyro and magnetic sensors, run fusion algorithms, and hand off only the relevant, already processed data to an application processor in a smartphone.

End result? Reduction in system-level power consumption in a handset by 82 percent when running street view applications of Google Map, according to a Lapis official.

A tiny sensor fusion chip is added to a smartphone

A tiny sensor fusion chip is added to a smartphone

IoT sensor shield

Designed by Macnica, an IoT sensor shield board called "Uzuki" is designed for "makers." The board connect via I2C with Arduino or Yukai Engineering’s physical computing tool kit "Konashi."

Uzuki has on-board 3-axis accelerometer, temperature and humidity sensor, proximity, and UV index sensor. These sensors allow system designers to use data such as ambient temperature, humidity, light luminescence, IR level, UV level, vibration, shock, and detection of movement on the iOS devices using the Konashi environment. No soldering needed.

The Konashi environment lets software engineers, designers, and artists prototype easily without the need to access complex hardware and develop firmware on the MCU, according to Macnica.

— Junko Yoshida is Chief International Correspondent at EE Times


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