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March 31, 2015

Digital Devices: Insurance Agents of Tomorrow

Posted by Mohan Babu (View Profile | View All Posts) at 7:11 AM

The insurance industry globally is undergoing a major transformation. Pervasive technologies, growing millennial consumer base, fierce competition and increased regulatory interventions are changing the very fundamentals of the insurance business. As customers become more selective and competitors more agile, it is imperative for insurers to continuously innovate their product portfolio and distribution mix to stay ahead of the competition.

Today's customers play an active role across the insurance policy lifecycle, starting from product development to claims disbursement. The product-centric business model, is slowly but surely making way for a customer-centric one. In this evolving marketplace, one in which customers are calling all the shots, distribution function is going through a significant transformation.

With widespread availability of advanced technological propositions and an emerging connected customer segment, insurers have started exploring ways to develop newer direct distribution channels. The market is abuzz with several direct-to-consumer distribution strategies leveraging mobile, web, and smart digital devices. Insurance companies are also effectively using cloud, social media, Internet of Things (IoT) and analytics solutions to develop an integrated technological platform to meet (and exceed) customer demands and expectations across the policy lifecycle.

Apart from assisting customers in comparing and buying the most suitable insurance products, direct channels also provide insurers with opportunities to increase sales, while keeping a check on costs. The last few years have seen consistent uptick in the direct channel sales, especially in the personal auto and home insurance space. While agents still maintain a dominant position in most of the insurance markets, their share in overall sales is on the decline.

The shift towards digital is however not limited to personal home or auto insurance; commercial line carriers are also targeting small and medium enterprises to offer several products using direct channels. Not wanting to be left behind, life insurers are also exploring ways to grow the direct channel sales, though currently it's centered more on term life products. Recent investments by leading life insurers however suggest that direct channel sales will go beyond simpler term policies.

Consumer data lies at the core of this distribution revolution and therefore, a single customer view is critical in setting up an effective direct channel strategy. In addition, the digital transformation journey requires a holistic technology solution encompassing enterprise content management, ability to process cross-channels leveraging the web, mobile and social technologies, a wide range of analytics, metrics and predictive modeling solutions.

While the move towards digital is inevitable for the insurers, a well-defined strategy and approach is necessary to succeed in this virtual marketplace. To steer ahead, insurers need to rethink their traditional product portfolio, marketing approach, legacy technology and the operating model. Insurers need to strategically address the insurance value chain and realign their business model to gain competitive edge. The digital framework must address four key strategies around product, distribution, sales and marketing and operations. All of these must come together in order to create a robust digital sales structure.

With technological advancements creating newer opportunities almost every day, insurers cannot afford to ignore the changing wave of business environment and shall take proactive and decisive steps towards embracing them to stay relevant in the marketplace. While insurers should acknowledge and adopt the shifting priorities towards digital, it is important to realize that all product lines may not be best marketed or sold through the digital medium. Agencies and other channels will continue to play an important role and will co-exist alongside digital channels. Therefore, it is important for insurers to carefully chart out the priorities for direct channels and develop an integrated multi-channel ecosystem to provide flexible, seamless customer experience that allows them to compete and grow in this dynamic market.

March 27, 2015

Digital Marketing For All Five Senses?

Posted by Ambeshwar Nath (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:22 AM

Digital Marketing
Most digital consumers don't even realize that they are being bombarded with numerous sensory cues in carefully calculated orders and methods in order to get them to click and purchase

In many parts of the world, television shows about food - or, more specifically, how to prepare it - are spectacularly popular. What we eat and how we cook it apparently says a lot about us. In fact, there's even a lovely movie - The Hundred-Foot Journey - about a stodgy, elderly expat learning how to cook with an array of Indian spices.

The movie is really about this pensioner learning how to live and love against a backdrop of cooking. Indeed, what's so powerful about food and its preparation is that it's a wonderfully powerful assault on all of our senses. That said, one assumes marketers know about sensory stimulation and how best to utilize it when selling us products - especially online.

If you think the web is just about sight and sound, then you have a lot to learn about how savvy consumer focused organizations are becoming. New research demonstrates how the right marketing software can be employed by retail organizations to tap into not just the sense of sight to an online consumer, but all senses - creating powerful sales platforms and strategies.

For example, the consumer packaged goods giant Unilever produces a number of well-known deodorants for men and women. But its Axe brand spray deodorant, marketed to hip young men, makes a different sound when it comes out of the canister than its Dove brand deodorant, marketed to women who are looking for delicate products that soften their skin.The two brands obviously smell differently from each other, but the sound their spray bottles make is different, too.

In fact, a recent academic study suggests that consumers are heavily influenced by the order in which they receive sensory cues, and the presence of multiple cues strategically placed around them at the same time. Did you know, for instance, that online consumers equate different colors with different smells? A manufacturer and marketer of fragrances might send a consumer a number of test strips with scents on them where each strip of paper is a different color. And they will make sure the consumer tests each strip in a particular order as well.

A professor who participated in the study, Don Lehmann of Columbia Business School, says that in theory the order of the sensory cues shouldn't matter because the information received is the same. But, he says, what we see, taste, smell, and hear is often influenced by the presence of other sensory cues, and so when sampling, each product is not evaluated in isolation.

In some ways, he's described the online marketing experience. Most digital consumers don't even realize that they are being bombarded with numerous sensory cues in carefully calculated orders and methods in order to get them to click and purchase. One of the big lessons learned in the study was that being first matters. Hence the more robust the software a company wields, the more likely it will clinch some important sales. Consumers who sample products that offer similar sensory experiences are almost always likely to choose the first product. But when the sensory cues are different, the order of their presentation to the consumer doesn't matter as much.

What digital consumers now have at their disposal is a real hands-on tool to test and sample items - the Internet and the various devices that connect to it. Just think of how powerful these marketing tactics will become when the Internet of Everything begins to take hold. What has worked with marketers in the bricks and mortar world might very well find new and relevant life in the digital world in which everything and everyone is connected.

As I headed out of the Bangalore Airport recently, I overheard the security guard at the gate and his colleague discussing the next watch sale on Amazon, a company that has redefined digital and has broken the boundaries between digital and bricks and mortar. I couldn't help but wonder if the Internet of Everything has already rocketed ahead.

March 24, 2015

Building (And Flying) With Sustainability In Mind

Posted by Aruna C. Newton (View Profile | View All Posts) at 5:09 AM

Solar Impulse 2 takes off for historic around-the-world attempt [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vy9PB0Zn2Z4]

Places that have ageing urban infrastructure have a golden opportunity on their hands. When they do re-build, they should take the chance to do so with sustainability in mind. Then there are places that are about to undergo a building boom, like India. Studies show that a whopping two-thirds of the commercial buildings planned until 2030 are yet to be built.

I think this is a brilliant opportunity for Indian companies to create the most efficient structures in the world. Why? Well, much of India is blessed with a lot of golden sun, which means a lot of solar energy. And the more we learn about sustainability, the more we're realizing that solar energy is the most efficient and cost effective energy in the long run - especially to build with.

Think about this: Saudi Arabia is extremely blessed with plentiful solar energy. But because old-style fossil fuels are also very plentiful there, and they are cheap, the Saudis don't have much of an impetus to build with solar in mind. That's unfortunate, because the sun is going to be blazing for billions of years, and the peak oil timeline? Some experts give petroleum another century at best. It's time for everyone to think solar!

At Infosys, we've embraced solar energy with gusto and enthusiasm. Frankly, when you learn about the materials that absorb and conserve solar heat, it's quite fascinating. And when the CFO's office crunches the numbers and discovers what kind of savings the company can enjoy over the long run, it becomes a satisfying endeavor as well. We have some 3.8 million square feet of the highest-rated buildings when it comes to energy conservation - 12 LEED platinum-rated and two GRIHA 5 Star-rated buildings - in India. For us, the sky is the limit: We have introduced the first radiant panel-based cooling system in our M&C building in Bangalore. Water has the ability to carry 3,400 times the energy that can be carried by air.

But it doesn't have to be advanced energy technology. Sometimes it's just common sense. For instance, if you work in an Infosys building in India, then chances are that the building's roof has been painted white to ensure there is minimum heat penetration into the building. This simple method has the ability to reduce the overall building temperature by at least two degrees Celsius.

Other companies are just as committed to conserving energy. Did you hear about Apple CEO Tim Cook announce the company's plans to build a 130-megawatt solar farm to power its stores and facilities located in California? Cook has said that Apple will work with First Solar to build a $850-million plant, which will sit on 1,300 acres in central California, another place blessed with lots of sun. What is absolutely stunning about Apple's plans is that the firm's solar farm, called the First Solar California Flats Solar Project, is the largest solar procurement deal by a company that's not a utility. It has been reported that the project is also the first wholesale commercial and industrial power-purchase agreement for First Solar, which signed a 25-year PPA with Pacific Gas and Electric. Imagine that: A computer company possibly selling excess energy to a public utility!

We are truly entering a new age when companies dedicated to businesses other than energy will someday have enough of it to sell it to local utilities. Perhaps my favorite example of just how innovative energy conservation has become is an airplane called the Solar Impulse 2. This plane has a wingspan wider than a Boeing jumbo jet and yet it weighs about as much as a car. Solar Impulse 2 is equipped with more than 17,000 solar cells and more than 1,300 pounds of batteries. That's enough energy storage to keep the plane flying indefinitely. No stops for fossil fuels.

The Solar Impulse 2 is currently flying around the world. The flight will end in (of all places) Abu Dhabi, the sun-drenched capital of the UAE. That is a country that despite its plentiful fossil fuels, is focusing on sustainable construction. An inspiring example to us all - they don't have to build with sustainability in mind, but they want to.

March 20, 2015

Hackathon: Bringing Design Thinking and Agile to Life

Posted by Jeff Kavanaugh (View Profile | View All Posts) at 7:19 AM

Fly me to the moon!...
Droning on...in a good way! Uplifting ideas from Team DroneIT

March Madness began a little early at Infosys last weekend with its first US Hackathon, conducted in the Dallas area. While the rest of the country was busy contemplating their NCAA basketball brackets, several intrepid teams were in their local office working around the clock to create working prototypes. What better way to spend a weekend?

Besides the lure of the champion's prize and the adrenalin rush of conquering a tough problem, this was a great opportunity to see Design Thinking at work in real time. It was amazing to see the teams start from essentially a zero base, armed with only an idea, and create a technology stack and demonstrate a working prototype in less than 48 hours.

The hackathon is also noteworthy because it offers a microcosm of formal projects and initiatives in general. If a small team can make so much progress in a single weekend, why do projects take so long? If so much can be learned testing low-fidelity prototypes, then why do companies wait so long to test solutions? To be sure, the typical enterprise project approach is not the all-night, caffeine- and sugar-fueled sprints of startup lore, but hackathon elements can be incorporated to improve and accelerate results in the "real world."

Hackathons embrace Design Thinking, a method for increasing the creative confidence of people who operate in an environment of ambiguity but also great opportunity, like the beginning of a product lifecycle or initiative. Design Thinking is the simultaneous consideration of customer desirability, technical feasibility, and economical viability. Who wants this product or service? Will it work? Is there enough value? The elements for successful innovation are knowledge, imagination and conviction. Many of us live and work in environments where knowledge dominates everything - in fact this is our core strength. However, knowledge alone works well only on well-defined problems, the puzzles of our world. Grabbing opportunities early requires grappling with a large measure of ambiguous problems, and requires knowledge, imagination and conviction in equal measure - these are mysteries, and problem-finding takes precedence over problem-solving. This allows people the courage to test ideas without having all the facts - prototype early and often!

Design Thinking brings in tools to release the shackles on your imagination, and encourages conviction by moving quickly in small steps, by learning from failure, and building on success. When a person has creative confidence, they are able to fully leverage their domain knowledge, but also articulate a vision, engage rapidly with stakeholders, make quick decisions, and succeed in new opportunities without being discouraged by early failures.

Meanwhile, back to the hackathon...the winning project was the intermodal terminal mapper using a combination of drones, image processing, and optical character recognition. Again, amazing to see such energy and progress made in a short time.

While the rest of the nation turns its attention to the basketball brackets, this group of hackers will move on to the next round of their own competition, accompanied by teams from similar events in offices from Palo Alto, Atlanta, and other major US offices. They remind the rest of us to 'prototype early and often' and to incorporate other hackathon principles into our own projects.

March 18, 2015

How Precision Medicine is Transforming Life Sciences

Posted by Subhro Mallik (View Profile | View All Posts) at 9:36 AM

Cancer patients find hope in precision medicine [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxING9lzVaY]

We live in an age when personalized digital assistants know more about our lives and our daily schedules than we do. So wouldn't it stand to reason that we should be able to receive personalized pharmaceuticals as well?

The medical field I'm talking about, also known as precision medicine, is radically altering the life sciences industry. Recently, the American president called for his country's lawmakers to allocate $215 million toward what he's calling the "precision medicine initiative." The background behind this ambitious project is that every patient is different (we kind of knew that). But what pharmaceutical and biotech companies are making great strides in is knowing the exact genetic make-up of an individual - from that person's genes to the microbes living in her body and certain environmental factors as well (suppose he/she's a pack-a-day smoker).

The promise of precision medicine, said President Obama is "delivering the right treatment at the right time, every time, to the right person." If it sounds complicated, you better believe it is. And $215 million from the government is, in the grand scheme of things, enough to scratch the surface of this new scientific field. But the promises are quite alluring, especially to life sciences enterprises that can tailor prescription drugs to patients one pill at a time when they learn about a person's specific (and unique) medical information.

Some institutions are already embracing precision medicine. For example, when someone is diagnosed with cancer, the next step is to undergo molecular and genetic testing. Doing so lets doctors pick which drug is most appropriate for which cancer patient. This development has huge ramifications for the pharmaceuticals industry. Imagine, if you will, a prescription being sent to a drug-maker that custom-manufactures a drug on the spot. Then that one-of-a-kind prescription is dispensed just as rapidly.

What's making all of these exciting developments possible is that the cost of genetic testing and sequencing the human genome has dropped significantly during the past couple years. As such, the ability to tailor medicines and dosages (and even blood transfusions) to the individual patient on a case-by-case basis is quickly becoming a reality. Soon, when a doctor chooses a cancer treatment for a patient, it will involve determining that person's genetic code so that pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms can formulate custom (or, better yet, precision) made products.

Even though the costs to do so will initially be very high, think about precision medicine as a way to pinpoint treatments and get better and quicker recoveries. That's because scientists now know that tumors have their own molecular signatures. Physicians don't need to make a patient undergo as many tests because they can very efficiently determine the type of cancer and, by extension, devise a plan to treat it with precision drugs.

In any industry - including the life sciences - pinpointing a solution to a problem in order to solve it more quickly and resolutely is, in the long run, a cost-saving move. So I imagine the cost of precision medicine to pay for itself once cancer patients and the like begin to see miraculous recoveries because of the customized products from the world of pharma and biotech. And let's not forget that all of these future treatments will be enabled by greater computing power. The software that will be needed to dole out precision medical treatments is only now just beginning.

March 16, 2015

Rise (or Descent) of the Bots

Posted by Amitabh Mudaliar (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:12 AM

Rise (or Descent) of the Bots
Bots are incredibly convenient ways to publicize a brand or organization to people who depend on social media for a lot of their day

Have you ever heard the story of Lajello? We all have our 15 seconds of fame, and for a while, he was one of the most popular characters on the Internet. Why? Because he was a prominent and well respected member in a social media network for book lovers. Very high brow stuff. He was known to recommend books that he had read and for a time became the second-most "liked" person in that online group.

The problem was that Lajello was nothing more than an algorithm. Many book lovers had sustained long online conversations with Lajello and some even shared their innermost thoughts and emotions. Turns out they were speaking to a "bot." There's a startling new study that finds one in five of us accepts "bots" unknowingly into our online worlds. We befriend them, talk with them, and treat them like a member of the family.

Now I know what you must be thinking if you're part of a consumer-focused enterprise: Bots sound too good to be true! They can talk to consumers and publicize your brand. But the flip side is that they can influence consumer opinion in the wrong direction and sometimes cause a lot of trouble. Right before Facebook went public in the largest IPO in history, someone tried to flood the Internet with some 10 billion bots who, right before the company went public, displayed their true identities - nothing more than algorithms written to look like online accounts and legitimate, living, breathing people.

Fortunately for Facebook, that ruse was discovered and foiled at the last minute. If it had succeeded, perhaps Facebook's IPO would have gone bust. Just think of the loss of trust in a social network if 10 billion online "people" turn out to be fake. Bots are the bane of many a social media network. I'm told that Twitter is constantly at war with bots, which is kind of funny when you think about it. Algorithms fighting other algorithms. Twitter not only uses courts of law to fight them but also is employing machine-learning technology to root them out.

When someone criticizes anything or anyone associated with the military, I sometimes remind them that some of the world's greatest innovations and technology (from night vision goggles to canned food) came out of departments of defense. In this same spirit, I find it fascinating that advances in Artificial Intelligence is coming about because large corporations like Twitter are developing machine-learning technology to fight those pesky and bothersome bots.

Of course, if I were to present another perspective, I would say that bots are incredibly convenient ways to publicize a brand or organization to people who depend on social media for a lot of their day. Bots can "like" certain products and be programmed to make very positive posts about a certain product. Doing so, in turn, creates online communities of like-minded people and, unbeknownst to them, like-minded bots. In some ways, therefore, bots can be harmless when used as incredibly potent marketing tools. They probably should be a part of any online marketer's arsenal.

Nobody ever said the online world was a safe, transparent, and easy one. If anything, the Internet has made us all a bit more skeptical of what we read and what we see. For legitimate organizations, that's fine. That gives them more opportunities to connect with their loyal consumers.

And there will always be snake oil salesmen, whether online or not. That some social media companies have raised the technological level of their game is what's most encouraging about the rise of the bots. They want to weed out the non-humans taking up space on their websites. This necessity is indeed the mother of invention ... and innovation.

March 13, 2015

Online Payment Companies Hone In On Financial Lending

Posted by Rajashekara V. Maiya (View Profile | View All Posts) at 5:53 AM

SMEs turn to peer-to-peer lending [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_c9Hs3wGv4]

It was the legendary technologist Andy Grove who said: "Only the paranoid survive." Smart advice from a smart businessman. Today's marketplace is shifting and changing so rapidly that it certainly does pay to keep one's eyes on the prize.

Consider, for instance, the online payments space. The post-global economic crisis created a new world order, especially when it came to financial services firms. During the World Economic Forum (WEF), the best and brightest from the banking world discussed how nimble even the largest banks have had to become just to survive. And how, by the power of crowdfunding, new entities are giving them a run for their money.

Crowdfunding (or crowdsourcing, as some people call it) is a simple concept. It relies on the sheer number of connected consumers around the world to engage in a cause or new venture. Whereas in the past, an entrepreneur might have had to grovel before countless venture capitalists to receive the necessary funding to get their business off the ground, now they can theoretically present their ideas to a global online audience. Let's assume that nobody in this online audience has even one-tenth the financial resources of one venture capital firm. But perhaps 100 people online respond favorably to the business idea. That's enough to get the entrepreneur off to a great start! And the numbers aren't too bad either.According to CB Insights, globally, 193 payments start-ups received venture capital funding in 2013, and there were 40 new mobile money services launched in the same year.

This scenario is what is essentially playing out in the financial services arena right now. The Infosys-EFMA joint research report notes that the non-cash payments industry is growing between 11.6% to 16.8% annually in emerging and growth economies. There are online payment companies that are fairly well known and established - firms like PayPal and Square. Recently, executives in those companies have been leveraging the power of Big Data and analytics and come to the conclusion that what has made them successful in the realm of online payments can also make them just as effective with loans. In fact in just five years, Lending Club (an American peer-to-peer lending company), has grown from USD 52M in 2009 to USD 2B in 2013, primarily driven by the channel innovation.

What I find ingenious is that these online payment companies have also ceded the large business loan space to the banks that have dominated that business for centuries. What they're going after is the small to medium-sized business loan. You see, after the global economic crisis, governments put tighter regulations around banks that included the amount and kinds of loans they could provide. Small and medium-sized businesses bore the brunt of these regulations. A kind of vacuum that was created by those regulatory measures has been efficiently filled by online payment companies.

I highly doubt that the world's global financial services firms are worried about this new development. They have plenty of large customers who are constantly borrowing huge sums of money. But like the concept of crowdsourcing itself, all those small loans facilitated by online payment companies can add up over time. And in the world of banking, reputations and brand names matter a lot. So it could stand to reason that after a sterling track record of making smaller loans, larger entities might be persuaded to try out the loan services of online payment systems.

Indeed, discussions at past WEFs in Davos demonstrated that the world's largest banks have become more nimble in a post-crisis world. But so have their online competitors. It will be interesting to see how this financial services space plays out in the next few years.

March 10, 2015

Keeping An Eye On Apple Watch

Posted by Suryaprakash K. (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:01 AM

What Do We Know Now About Apple Watch? [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJRr6cQwNLI]

Spring forward and fall back. That's how everyone remembers what to do with their clocks twice a year with the onset (and then the end) of Daylight Saving Time. This year, Daylight Saving Time began on March 8 - a day before Apple launched the much anticipated Apple Watch. Playing as coy as possible, the Cupertino giant had issued a tantalizing invitation to the world's technology press that it would "spring forward" with the debut of a certain piece of hardware.

It didn't take much deduction to figure out that the device in question was the Apple Watch, springing forth into a market that analysts say is starving for every kind of wearable computing platform imaginable. But thinking about the whole affair - the symbolism, the merchandise, and the consumer demand for such goods - is enough to give one pause.

Let's start with the entire notion of Daylight Saving Time. Advocated by Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the United States, this was a way to give farmers more daylight to do their chores in the early morning hours. It is a tradition that is utterly senseless in the United States of today. "Springing forward" an hour simply robs office workers of a precious hour of sleep, throws off schedules, and is the time of year more Americans suffer heart attacks than any other. Is this really the right time to celebrate the debut of the Apple Watch?

Then there's the product itself. Weary, sleep-deprived consumers stood in line to get their first true glimpse of the Apple Watch yesterday. The good news is that the watch comes in different sizes, finishes and pricing options. Needless to add, the experience is perfect across all models. Apple Pay is also embedded into the device, along with a security element and near-field communication (NFC).

Just don't try to operate the watch like a wearable computing platform because if you run a few apps the battery will die in a little more than two hours. Apple says that the product has an "18-hour battery" life but the usage is defined on its website, which includes "90 time checks, 45 minutes of app use" amongst others. That's not set in stone, however. For example, when the watch is used for phone calls the battery is expected to only last for three hours. Indeed, the issue of battery life is a serious one - a make-or-break feature of the Apple Watch. If a user has to remember to take off his/her watch and plug it into the charger every couple hours throughout the day, what's the use of having it on his/her wrist for the remaining time? Why not just use a tablet? The screen is a lot larger and easier to use anyway.

The idea of springing forward also got me thinking of the now infamous visit some 35 years ago of a young and ambitious Steve Jobs to the laboratories of Xerox, which was readying itself for a much anticipated debut of its version of a personal computer. Xerox executives had let the young Jobs catch a glimpse of the Alto, which with its clever mouse attachment let users lose the clunky keyboard to open windows on its screen that were clear and intuitive. Jobs was amazed at what he saw. But when the Alto went to market in 1981, it was underpowered and sluggish. Its underwhelming performance led Xerox to leave the personal computer market and go back to manufacturing office copiers.

Jobs knew that the overall concept of the Alto was brilliant. So he had his engineers devise a better mouse and juiced up his version with more power and agility. The resulting Macintosh changed the personal computer market forever. The question today is: Just how profoundly (if at all) will the Apple Watch change the wearable computing market? If it's as underpowered as rumored, maybe there's a young, ambitious company executive out there watching the debut in Cupertino, California. Maybe this executive is already forming a team to make much-needed enhancements on a wearable that a consumer can strap to his/her wrist and wear all day without a recharge.

That's really the essence of innovation, isn't it? Sometimes it takes a couple steps back to truly spring forward.

March 4, 2015

Anticipation Builds for the iCar

Posted by Vikram Meghal (View Profile | View All Posts) at 3:16 AM

Apple's Electric Car Plans: Should Tesla Worry? [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2EJF6HZCA4]

A couple of weeks ago I came across an interesting technological rumor: that Apple is making plans to build a car. Yes, an iCar. It helps the general buzz that Apple has reportedly been very aggressive in its poaching and hiring of talent from Tesla, the maker of futuristic, battery-powered vehicles. Apple has also made no secret that it wishes to dominate the wearable computing sector, which, if defined widely enough, includes driveable platforms. Even more industry buzz to add fuel to the proverbial fire: Silicon Valley entrepreneur Kyle Vogt's company, Cruise Automation, is expected to begin selling technology that lets cars drive themselves - the first company to do so. All that talk of a Google car and we've been missing some fascinating activity in the space going on right under our noses!

Regardless if any of these rumors are true, let's concentrate on the ramifications of a computer company like Apple designing, manufacturing, and marketing an automobile. The story here isn't about what would most likely be a very sleek frame set on four wheels with a powerful engine to boot. That's a given. Apple always builds cool products. No, the real story here is about software.

We're entering a new era, the Software Age. It's a natural extension of the Information Age that we've been a part of with all its various iterations (1.0, 2.0, etc.). There is perhaps no better place to demonstrate just why and how software will become vital to everything we do than talking about a driveable platform. Hardware is an important part of the equation. But it's subservient to what powers all the systems that are carried within that metal (or carbon-fiber composite) shell. Without the right software, the driveable computing platform of the near-future will be just that: a nice looking shell.

Auto enthusiasts have long had a saying that when it comes to cars, it's what's under the hood that matters. So does the software that powers a driveable. I read a prominent study that predicts connected-car technology is only in its infancy, even though services like General Motors' OnStar system has been around for a couple decades. Indeed, connected car safety systems - services that warn drivers about an impending storm or an impending collision - account for the lion's share of connected car revenues for car companies.

But that's changing. Those back-seat connections are where the big money is going to come from in the near future. Passengers can download movies, music, and more - even checking their social media accounts. By 2020, the study says that connected car entertainment systems will by themselves account for as much as $13 billion in annual revenues.

Now here's the real kicker. That same study found that 80 percent of consumers have either never heard of a connected car or aren't quite sure what the term means. If that's the case, then both technology and automotive companies have a lot of marketing to do. If more consumers begin to understand the benefits of a connected car (a true driveable computer platform), then the sky is the limit.

That's one reason I think the Apple iCar rumor might be true. Apple knows how to market its technology just as effectively as it designs and builds it. It will be a cinch to get consumers very excited about the prospect of driving around in a car built by the world's largest and most well-known corporation - even if it has until now had no experience building cars. After all, it's the software under the hood that's really going to set an iCar apart from its competitors.

March 3, 2015

3D Printing: Incredible Potential For Medical Device Makers

Posted by Suryaprakash K. (View Profile | View All Posts) at 8:53 AM

Girl gets 3D-printed prosthetic hand - BBC News [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KK25aLLhDk0]

When you mention robotics to the average consumer, it conjures up images of really cool figurines strutting around the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and greeting you with a smile. Or if the person is in the manufacturing sector, they no doubt think of the many robotic welding arms along an assembly line in, say, an automotive plant.

But what happens when you bring together a graduate student in aerospace engineering and another in neuroscience? You get robotics prototypes that could very well be profound game-changers for people who are missing limbs. Especially patients in the developing world, where such advanced prosthetics can be prohibitively expensive.

I am following with interest a project at the University of Illinois in America where two such graduate students have combined their talents to produce via 3D printing what is officially known as an "open-source, dexterous artificial hand." That's a fancy way of saying that these ingenious and innovative students could very well be breaking a significant barrier to outfitting the world with prosthetics that are not only economically feasible (because they can be customized and rapidly produced on a 3D printer) but also technologically advanced.

Up until recently, people who were missing an arm or hand used the same kind of strap-on prosthesis with a clasping hook that has been widely used for more than a century. Such technology came out of World War I in 1918 and we're largely still using it today! Part of the reason was that there just aren't enough people missing arms and hands to create a booming market which in turn encourages entrepreneurship and innovation. In the United States alone, the number of people missing arms is only in the hundreds of thousands. Compare that to the number of people missing legs - they number in the millions - and you can see (economically, at least) why progress on leg prosthetics has vastly outpaced work with hands and arms.

But that's all changing, partly thanks to the students in Illinois. They're using machine-learning algorithms to essentially train the 3D-printed hand to move using electromyography (EMG). That means they replicate human motions by taking the electrical signal from muscles in the arm and sending it to an EMG board. Then they send the signals to a microprocessor outfitted with a machine-learning algorithm. From there the signals become commands to a small motor that results in hand movement that's amazingly similar to the real thing.

Here's where things get even more exciting: The EMG board they currently use is about the size of a audio mixing board the likes of what you'd find in a recording studio. The students think they can shrink that board so that it can fit within the prosthetic limb itself. That's when everything will be self-contained and mobile, which is vital to the project's success for those wearing the 3D printer-generated hands.

I am impressed by the students' drive and energy. They produced the arm for an amputee in Ecuador. The point here is that because the project is based on open source software, enterprises around the world can use the technology to create their own models. Think of all the potential that medical device manufacturers will soon have to create customized limbs for consumers anywhere, anytime with the use of a 3D printer.

We hear a lot about the promise of digital integration these days. Surely the Internet of Things is evolving into a massive, multi-billion-dollar market for sophisticated consumers in the West who want to connect their cars to their home thermostats and even the coffeemakers on their kitchen counters.

But digital integration is going to mean so much more for the improvement of the lives of millions of people across the developing world as well. The 3D-printed hand, for instance, took just 30 hours to print and only two hours to assemble. Imagine how a medical device manufacturer will cut down that overall production time when there is an actual global market for such limbs -- which will be very soon!

When asked about the vast potential of the project, one of the students said: "It's really awesome to be able to help people. I didn't imagine doing something that has this direct impact on the world while still in college." Attention, all you medical device manufacturers: Have you made job offers to these students for when they graduate?

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