If you’ve wandered through a large airport in the last few years, you’ve likely seen a small, white, standalone terminal with four buttons that you could push to register how happy you were with the experience you just had while going through security. Those terminals are the work of Finnish company HappyOrNot, which launched a decade ago with a pretty approach to the internet of things.
The HappyOrNot team, which decamped from Nokia, realized that a 3G modem inside a terminal could allow companies to get feedback in relatively real time. I call it relatively real time because each kiosk runs on batteries, which means that power constraints won’t allow constant updates. To extend battery life, HappyOrNot has engineered the system to gather the data in real time but send the gathered data once a day.
But thanks to Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), that may soon change.
Dan Marinescu-Gava, head of product at HappyOrNot Ltd., says the company wants to turn its feedback machines into true real-time data delivery devices that update every minute. This has been a desire of the company’s for the last few years, but existing wireless options didn’t offer the kind of support and power consumption the HappyOrNot terminals need.
Part of the magic of the terminals is that they can be moved around and take about three minutes to set up. There’s nothing to plug in, which means customers can place them anywhere. And there are no apps on a customer’s phone that require some persnickety process to get the terminal online. When the HappyOrNot terminal arrives, there’s a quick build process and then the sales associate (or whomever is building it) removes a plastic strip from the batteries and the terminal connects via cellular modem back to HappyOrNot’s servers.
From there, the terminal starts recording button presses and sending the data to the customer. The cellular connectivity is important, both because it’s available everywhere the terminals are placed and because it’s easy to manage the connection process. Marinescu-Gava says HappyOrNot evaluated alternative Low-Power Wide-Area Networks such as LoRa and Sigfox, but found them lacking when it came to authentication, device management offerings, and overall coverage.
He decided to wait for NB-IoT. With the lower-power cellular radio, Marinescu-Gava believes he can send data every minute and still have the same battery life of two to three years the 3G modem offers today. And while Marinescu-Gava thinks we’re still four to five years out from widespread NB-IoT coverage, the company is starting now with a few test terminals to see what happens when you replace the 3G radios with NB-IoT.
Reducing the overall power consumption of the cellular radio offers two potential advantages — although a user may have to choose between them. The first is the ability to send data every minute, which opens up new use cases and lets customers of the HappyOrNot terminal take action to solve unhappy customers’ problems right away. “No one wants to wait anymore,” says Marinescu-Gava. “You want your package to come faster, not slower. It’s like Amazon.”
The second advantage is that if a customer was fine with gathering data less often, the overall terminal size could shrink because HappyOrNot could use smaller batteries. Then customers could put HappyOrNot devices in all kinds of new places.
Both are important when considering the internet of things. Broadband connections enabled new kinds of applications based on sending larger and larger amounts of data. Services such as Spotify, YouTube, or FaceTime are unimaginable without robust broadband.
With NB-IoT, an entirely new class of battery-powered devices capable of actually sending data in real time could create a different class of applications. It may be as simple as using a HappyOrNot-style button to let a city know that a public toilet needs servicing, or as elaborate as a parking space sensor that registers your car’s weight on the spot and dynamically charges you based on immediate feedback from other sensors showing how many spots are occupied.
And reduced power consumption — plus the research that companies are doing into energy harvesting for sensors and radios, which will see connected devices get smaller and more portable — will change what’s possible by removing the limits associated with where one can place connected devices and the cost associated with them.
Keep an eye on HappyOrNot. It’s figured out how to use the byproducts of mobile technology development to create a new business opportunity. I can’t wait to see if it can do it again for the IoT.