Reporting Matt Roush
How could I possibly top three straight 18-hour days prowling the International Consumer Electronics Show?
Easy, With a fourth 18-hour day that as usual held so much fascinating stuff that you don’t realize you’re tired until it’s over.
The day began with a Consumer Electronics Association “power panel” on innovation featuring Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mullaly, Xerox Corp. Ursula Burns and John Stratton, Verizon executive vice president, in charge of the telecom’s enterprise solutions business.
Basically, they said that corporate survival these days requires a dedicated, consistent commitment to innovation — and that requires both a hefty budget and a tolerance for the noble failure.
Mulally said that required Ford to borrow more than $23 billion a few years ago. And Burns said that as a CEO, not to mention as a spouse and parent, “I screw up. Every day. Those are called mistakes, not failures. It’s life.”
Innovation also requires flexibility, Stratton said, pointing out that three quarters of Verizon’s revenue are in businesses that “didn’t exist or barely existed” when the company was founded 12 years ago. He also said that Verizon has realized that it can’t innovate everything it needs in house, and is allowing outsiders to innovate on its behalf.
Mulally said that turning Ford around required getting workers to think both long term — at least five to 10 years out — and of the bigger picture. He recalled a 1925 Ford ad that called the company’s purpose “opening the highways to all mankind.” That obviously goes well beyond each worker making sure the gears are turning properly that shift.
Burns said such inspiration is key to being an effective CEO.
“When you’re CEO one of the things you do is figure out what it is that you actually do,” she said. “You could sit in your office all day and do paperwork… Or you can go out and sell, not just to customers, but to employeees, that this is a wonderful place to work, and we want them to be passionately interested in waht they do.”
Burns, when asked what public policy could help innovation, said science, technology, engineering and math education simply must improve. She said she’d like to stomp out youth dreams of becoming a sports star — which simply aren’t realistic or probable — and replace them with dreams of becoming a productive, $80,000-a-year scientist or engineer, a goal within reach of masses of youth.
Mulally said America is “fighting for its soul,” and complained that in “manufacturing, we have almost decided not to be competitive.” Specifically, he called for currency rates “set by markets, not manipulation.” And he said that given a fair shot, American can compete with anyone — the new Ford Explorer, for example, built in Chicago, and being exported to 93 countries.
(Unsolicited opinion dept.: Stratton, unfortunately, indulged in some depressingly common CEO-class whining about “uncertainty” in the U.S. tax and regulatory climate. Oh, please. Welcome to the world the rest of us live in, where everything is uncertain. Stop whining, get out there and kill us with uber-cool technology, and the tax and regulatory climates will take care of themselves.)
After the speech, I swung by the big North Hall booth of Powerbag and my pal Gregg Hirschhorn, who led me through yet another company established by the Homedics empire of CEO Ron Ferber, which employs about 300 people at its headquarters just off Pontiac Trail in Commerce Township.
These are very cool briefcases and backpacks with built-in batteries and universal chargers. Yes, that’s right, you can now carry tons of backup power for all your smartphones, tablets and other tech goodies.
Hirschhorn said Ferber and Homedics product developers travel to China constantly. And they said they wanted a bag that powered their devices — but there wasn’t one, so they built one.
Powerbag also includes the myCharge portable charger line, which ranges from $30 to $100. Some plug into the wall, some charge through the USB port of your computer. All provide portable power on the go.
Hirschhorn said Powerbag is here to demonstrate current and new models to customers like Office Max, Best Buy, Fry’s and Kohl’s.
Seriously, this is cool stuff. Or as Hirschhorn put it: “People don’t realize there is still innovation going on in Detroit, outside the car companies.”
Then it was a pop into the big tent of Delphi Corp., which is demonstrating a wide range of vehicle technologies, from wireless charging to navigation.
Delphi’s Bob Fust gave me the lowdown on Delphi’s wireless charging, which uses advanced magnetic resonance, which lets devices be a few inches farther away from a charging spot and still charge than does competing technology.
Delphi has also developed a foam pad with an embedded coil to expand the charging zone to areas of the car where it’s difficult or expensive to put wiring — the backs of seats, for instance.
When will we see these chargers in vehicles? Fust said Delphi is working with automakers on it right now and estimates about 2014.
Then I saw a real technological tour de force, a 2011 Volvo SC60 crossover embedded with Delphi connectivity systems.
Delphi’s Jugal K. Vijayvargiya said consumers are adamant about wanting connectivity in the car, despite whatever government authorities in the United States, Europe and Asia may say about distracted driving. So it’s up to companies like Delphi to do whatever it can to provide that connectivity in ways that minimize distracted driving.
In the vehicle, a 20-inch computer screen tipped vertical replaces the center console. Two slightly smaller horizontal screens are stacked where the speedometer and other gauges might normally go.
This car talks to the cloud, doing everything from importing favorite Web radio stations from a smartphone to pulling in geographic data.
The concept allows a lot more technology into the car in “low driver demand” environments — slower speeds and lighter traffic. In those cases, it will read a text message to you and invite you to respond. But in heavy traffic or bad weather, the car will simply alert you that a message has been received.
The concept car also measures where your eyes are directed, sounding an alarm if your eyes are off the road too long, and dimming dashboard screens that might be creating the distraction.
Overall, some very cool features that I really would like to see in my 2015 whatever-I-buy-then.
Next it was back to the convention center’s South Hall for a visit with WireOx, a manufacturer of new, used and aftermarket cell phone parts and accessories, including chargers, batteries, manuals, boxes, bluetooth gear and more.
CEO Haroon Siddiqui started the Ferndale-based company in 2007 after being in business refurbishing used cell phones.
Siddiqui has several distributors for his wares and was at CES for the second year looking for more. He’s also filed a patent for a car cell phone charger with an interesting twist that I can tell you more about once the patent is approved.
The company currently has 15 employees and sales representatives around the country. A sister company, Green Turtle Recycling, collects and recycles used electronics.
More at www.wireox.com.
And then I was jammin’. Well, as much as an overweight post-middle-aged Caucasian male can. Because when you enter the booth of the House of Marley, hey, you just begin to sway to the beat. You can’t help it.
Karen Korponai, director of marketing for this part of the Homedics electronics empire, showed me what’s new at the House of Marley’s second year at CES. Last year the emphasis was on headphones, she said. This year, it’s on iPod docking stations and speakers.
There are cool names like “Bag of Rhythm,” a portable boom box with a wooden top inspired by skate culture, “One Foundation,” an absolutely gorgeous tabletop stereo fashioned from a single plank of sustainably grown wood, and portable boom boxes called Nomad and Block Party.
The company is also adding Marley-themed watches, bags, backpacks and messenger bags this year, and sunglasses next year.
“Even though Bob Marley passed away 30 years ago, the age group that has the highest recognition of his name is 13 to 25,” Korpohai said. “We want Marley to be a lifestyle.”
It is, and it’s big fun.
Next door was Sharper Image and HMDX Audio, still more audio from the Homedics folks. I won’t belabor the line too much, since we’ve covered it already, but suffice it to say there’s amazing sound out of some of these little boxes, with a top price of $99. Particularly cool was a clock radio called Relaxx that features two docking stations — one for the iPhone, a separate one on the back for the iPad — and amazingly good sound given its small size.
I then spent a very enjoyable half-hour with Debra Lacey, director of automotive experience public relations, and Bob Vallance, vice president and general manager for product development and strategic initiatives for electronics, of Johnson Controls Inc.
Lacey is based at JCI’s Plymouth automotive headquarters, Vallance at a JCI plant in Holland that the company acquired from Prince Corp.
JCI’s invitation-only meeting room at the back of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall is seeing a steady stream of JCI’s automaker and supplier customers as well as electronics producers that will make the parts for JCI’s automotive assemblies of the future.
And what a future it’s going to be. JCI is showing off a stunning array of dashboard information centers using everything from traditional circular gauges to three-dimensional flat panel screens.
My personal favorite was a very cool heads-up display that projects clean graphics showing speed, direction and turn by turn navigation on the windshield. Vallance said this amazing little gizmo is already in production and will be turning up in cars soon.
Like other auto suppliers at CES, JCI is dealing with the looming role of the car as just another point on the network — but one with unique challenges, not least of which is avoiding driver distraction amid all the possibilities for blinking lights and incoming information. JCI is also challenged to make all the stuff that’s traditionally been handled by automotive systems — heating, cooling, the radio, the lights — with stuff that’s never been handled by automotive systems — phone calls, text messages, electronic directions and navigation — and making it all look seamless and effortless and making it all easy to use. Oh, and with bulletproof reliability, to boot. This is way more challenging than just building a good TV.
From South Hall it was back to the Venetian’s meeting rooms, back where my CES journey began Sunday night, for three quick visits with small Michigan companies. CES put hundreds of startups and smaller companies in the Venetian this year, companies that in some years have gone to the nearby Sands expo center and other Vegas venues.
First, it was Pay Anywhere, a new service of Troy-based North American Bancard. Pay Anywhere is a small device that plugs into an iPhone or iPad and turns it into a credit card swiping machine. An app on the iOS device in question sends the payment information to North American Bancard, which handles the processing.
How’s the show going for Pay Anywhere? ” It’s going fantastic,” said Deb Fonseca, corporate recruiter for the company. “I think it’s exceeded all of our expectations.”
Fonseca said Pay Anywhere is shopping the device — which by the way is free — to virtually all CES attendees. It’s also seeking affiliate partners and strategic partners.
And Fonseca said Pay Anywhere already has customer testimonials. An entrepreneur who sets up a roaming fruit stand at North American Bancard’s office building reports business is up 30 percent since it adopted Pay Anywhere, Fonseca said.
Overall, North American Bancard now has 475 employees, all of whom have a role in Pay Anywhere.
More at www.payanywhere.com.
Next it was over a row to Concept Factory, a designer of touch screen user interfaces based in downtown Detroit.
Michigan native Brian West founded the company in California in 1997 but moved it back home in 2002.
Ironically, West’s very first touch screen software project was for Las Vegas, a crude “tic tac toe” device that went in taxicabs and gave tourists information on hotels and night spots.
Today, the company supplies graphics to My Ford Touch and other automotive systems. Obviously, it’s at CES to chase new customers.
More at www.conceptfactory.com.
My final visit of CES 2012 was Lecture Tools Inc., a University of Michigan spinout that markets the classroom teaching systems of Perry Samson, a professor of atmospheric sciences at UM.
Lecture Tools is software sold as a subscription, under which teachers will upload their lectures and related illustrations, charts and graphs. They can also produce quizzes and tests in various formats. Students see the material and take the quizzes and tests. They can mark material they found confusing or difficult.
The cost is $15 to $18 per seat per term, and it’s a worthy system.
The technology is one of about 25 that the National Science Foundation sponsored to participate in the CES’ new Eureka Park TechZone for startups.
More than 4,000 UM undergraduate students in close to 20 classes used LectureTools on laptops or cell phones last semester. A UM Center for Research on Learning and Teaching study found that LectureTools uses significantly increased student engagement and attentiveness.
More at www.lecturetools.com.
And that was it. I’m back at the hotel now, putting up stories on the Web and building my newsletter, preparing to fly home Thursday.
I’m a little overwhelmed right now in terms of being able to figure out what all this wonderful technology on display means for Michigan. I’ll try that on Friday, so stay tuned.