Apple is tight-lipped about how many of its Apple Watches it has sold since its much-hyped debut in April, but experts estimate the sleek touchscreen smart device has sold anywhere between 2.5 million and 3 million copies. Meanwhile, Rajendra Sadhu, who runs his company, VEESAG, out of a tech incubator on Route 1, says he has secured 1 million pre-orders of his MPRESENS smart watch, about 700,000 in the U.S. alone. It might be the most successful tech device you’ve never heard of.
Apple Inc. has 115,000 employees and around $100 billion in cash reserves. VEESAG has 30 people, eight of whom work in India. Sadhu is planning a production run of 20 million watches, built in a Chinese factory.
Not bad for an entirely self-funded company that hasn’t spent a penny on marketing or advertising of any kind. With that kind of quiet rollout, VEESAG may not be a household name, but the MPRESENS watch is aiming to become a household necessity for elderly people and their families.
Sadhu is not the only Route 1 company that is betting on wearable computing technology. Universal Display Corporation, a Phillips Boulvard-based tech company in Ewing, is developing organic light-emitting diodes (LEDs) with the goal of creating flexible computer screens that could actually be integrated into clothing. And the R&D branch of Siemens, based on College Road East, is working on ways for surgeons to use “augmented reality” Google Glass-type devices to do their jobs better than ever before.
Of all the local wearable companies, VEESAG seems to have made the biggest dent in the market all while taking a very different approach from its competitors. The company’s watch doesn’t have a touchscreen or the hyper-engineered watchOS operating system that lets users effortlessly switch between apps. But it does have something the Apple watch and its competitors sorely lack: a clear purpose.
The main function of the watch is to allow users to call emergency services or family members at the touch of a button, much like other personal medical devices such as the LifeAlert. The smart watch, however, offers the significant advantage of being able to do so even if far away from a “home station” like the setup used for older devices. It works anywhere there is cell phone service. It also includes a built-in GPS system so that caregivers can see where the wearer is located at all times.
The watch also has eight built-in sensors for tracking different health metrics. It allows users to monitor temperature, light, humidity, and other metrics over a secure Internet portal. It automatically detects falls and can send alerts to caregivers. Its geo-fence capability allows caregivers to program the watch to set off an alert if it leaves a specified area, a feature useful for finding Alzheimers patients if they wander off.
As an emergency communication device, it offers several advantages over smartphones. Most phones have an “unlock screen” command that must be used to place any phone calls. Placing a call then requires several swipes or touch commands, even with speed dial. The smart watch only uses one button press.
The VEESAG watch also operates as a standalone device and does not need to be paired with a phone to operate, unlike other smart watches. It may not be able to use Snapchat or take video, but it is simpler for seniors to use even if they are not familiar with modern technology. “This device is made for a purpose. It’s not like something that shows you notifications from your smartphone,” Sadhu says. “How many seniors can carry a smartphone and then a watch? It’s very difficult. Seniors cannot operate new smartphones.”
The smart watch also has the capability of communicating with home automation systems so that, for example, the door could be automatically unlocked for paramedics.
Security standards for the smart watch had to be tight because of its use for medical information. The watch doesn’t store medical data locally, but rather communicates with the VEESAG servers through a private network that is never connected to the wider Internet.
It’s a device with zero appeal to the mass market consumers who are the target of other smart watches, but with a highly specific appeal to seniors and their caregivers. It’s a purpose that Sadhu knows all too well.
Sadhu left his native India where his father worked as an insurance salesman when he went to college to study engineering. He earned an MBA at Rutgers before working at IBM, U.S. Steel, and Verizon. While working at Verizon, Sadhu had to return home to take care of his parents during a health crisis. When he returned to the U.S., he wanted a way to monitor their health from afar but discovered that no company made a device that would do what he wanted. So he decided to make one.
Sadhu created the first version of the watch in 2010 and gave a pair to his parents. The first generation device wasn’t as capable as the new version, but still allowed emergency calls and location tracking. From his desktop PC, Sadhu could see where his parents were and monitor their health. Unfortunately, Sadhu’s father died last year.
“I wish he was here for when we launched it in the U.S. market,” Sadhu said. “He was motivating in creating the watch. There are so many people living here with parents across the globe. Many people like me need this kind of a service, so it’s been my dream to bring the product back to here.”
The first version of the smart watch was sold only to overseas markets, but it gained a good foothold in places like India and Jamaica. Because of strict U.S. regulations about medical devices, the earliest watches could not be sold here. This summer VEESAG gained certification from Verizon and Sprint to use their networks.
Sadhu says the pre-orders have come from E-commerce as well as brick-and-mortar retailers, senior monitoring companies, remote healthcare providers, and mobile telecom companies that he has partnered with. He expects it to retail for about $250. Sadhu has customers in the U.S. as well as Australia, India, Jamaica, and Canada. Sadhu says the first batch of watches will reach customers in two or three months. He says factories will be churning out 233,000 devices a week when it goes live.
“Our sales are because of the reputation that we already had, and the fact that it’s built for a purpose,” Sadhu says. And although the device was built for one specific purpose, customers have found uses for it outside of senior monitoring. Courier companies have given VEESAG watches to their employees to allow them to call for help in the event of a robbery. Other customers use them to keep track of relatives who are on religious pilgrimages.
Sadhu says he has funded the company since its founding with personal funds as well as investments from friends and relatives. But now, he says, he is looking for a $10 million investment to ramp up production. He says he also plans to move into a new headquarters somewhere in the Route 1 area and will likely have “several hundred” employees locally.
He is also planning future products, including a third-generation smart watch that incorporates design lessons has learned already from his second version and a “Connected Car” device.
The Connected Car device plugs into the car’s computer and allows users to get information from their car and even control it using a smartphone. It provides wi-fi support, crash notifications, engine status, fluid levels, and can integrate with home automation systems. Some newer cars have these capabilities, but Sadhu says the Connected Car module can be easily attached to older vehicles. “We have an international car manufacturer interested, but it might be available outside the U.S. to start with,” Sadhu says.
VEESAG is not the only local company that is thinking differently when it comes to mobile computing and moving beyond the smartphone.
Universal Display Corporation develops and licenses organic LED technology that is used in all kinds of screens from televisions to mobile phones. UDC licenses its technology to major display manufacturers such as Samsung, who build the screens that are used in all kinds of mobile devices. UDC-licensed phosphorescent OLED technology is used in millions of devices, including Apple watches and several brands of fitness tracker bracelets.
Mike Hack, vice president of business development for the company, sees the wearable applications for UDC technology only getting bigger in the future.
“I think OLEDs are the ideal technology for wearable devices and displays,” he says. “It’s already in wearables in a big way.”
The key to the success of OLED screens is that traditional LCD displays are backlit and have to be on glass. But OLEDs can use a plastic backing instead of a glass one, and plastic can bend. This makes the technology an obvious fit for wearable technology, and UDC is a big player in the market.
“If you want to be able to bend and have the display contour itself to, say, an arm, then really an OLED is the ideal technology,” Hack says. OLEDs are also power efficient and generate little heat compared to their LCD counterparts. However, Hack says we have only seen the beginning of use of OLEDs in this way.
From the earliest days of UDC, the company has envisioned displays of a radically different shape than the typical glowing rectangle that most people carry around. The goal of developing phosphorescent OLEDs was to enable “roll-up” screens that could fit inside a pen-shaped container when not being used and rolled out when needed, or that could be folded into thirds like a sheet of paper.
Hack says display manufacturers are already working on ways to fit screens into items of clothing — the most literally “wearable” computer yet envisioned.
Researchers have described possible applications for wearable computers, such as integrating computers and smartphones into clothing. A paper by French researchers published in 2014 said smart clothing could be used by professionals who needed hands-free functions for safety and data exchanges; healthcare workers who needed to monitor or diagnose patients remotely; sports training and performance measurement; and even recreational purposes like esthetic personalization and network games.
At Siemens on College Road East, researchers are inventing ways of integrating medical devices with Google Glass to give medical workers new ways of literally seeing inside of patients’ bodies.
According to a company publication, researcher Daphne Yu has integrated a portable ultrasound device with Google’s prototype Google Glass, a set of glasses that has an integrated camera and projects a computer image directly in front of the wearer’s eye. This projection creates an “augmented reality” that allows the user to see information, video, or pictures over top of the real world, not unlike a heads-up display in military aircraft.
Yu’s invention allows the user to see the ultrasound image on Google Glass rather than the monitor, essentially allowing the doctor to see inside a patient. She said the device would be usable where doctors could not take older, bulkier ultrasound systems.
“This way we can use the wireless technology of the Acuson Freestyle ultrasound system in all circumstances where mobility and accessibility are important,” Yu said. “That’s the case, for example, if you want to bring ultrasound up close to any patients in tight spaces, or in a crowded interventional procedure exam room without pushing around an ultrasound trolley.”
Researchers at the automation lab of the newly renovated College Road East campus (U.S. 1, May 6, 2015) are working with colleagues in Berkely, California, on ways of getting wearable devices, traditional computers, robots, and other kinds of machines to communicate with one another. Florian Michahelles, head of Siemens’s Web of Things research group, is developing “semantics” technologies that will allow different computer systems, such as wearable devices, to communicate with one another using common terms, and which could even facilitate human-to-human communication.
Semantics was developed for the Web about a decade ago, he says, but never caught on. It was conceived as a method of making the Web understandable for machines and search engines by getting computers to understand the meaning of text documents. “Google and Yahoo never picked up this descriptive technology,” Michahelles says.
But Siemens didn’t give up on semantics, instead seeing applications for the technology in a more limited environment. For example, if a building had two different computer systems, one to operate the HVAC system and the other to manage emergency systems, they could work together better if they shared a common vocabulary, such as knowing what a window was and what it meant when it was open or closed. The two systems could share common sensors and operate better together. “With semantics, machines have another way to communicate with each other. Not just in terms of protocols and exchanging terms, but to really have common concepts and share meaning. You have two systems with two completely different origins, but they have a higher level way of describing a meaning,” Michahelles says.
If you think that sounds more like human communication, Michahelles says, you’re not far off, although this is on a far smaller scale. “Human communication is really about the entire world, but we are just interested in small domains such as building control. It’s a tiny world compared to the whole human world, but there is some analogy there.”
Michahelles believes semantics will be very useful in wearable devices and human-robot interaction. Last year he published a study about using wearable sensors in healthcare settings. His team created prototype wearable devices that tracked metrics like heart rate.
“Today you go to your doctor and you tell a story about how you feel,” he said. “With our technology you could also pull up your data that you have collected and look at it with your doctor and provide more evidence.”
But beyond that, the trackers used semantics to put the heart rate information in context, such as what the person was doing at the time, helping build a better picture of what the heart rate meant rather than just spitting out data.
“We are interested in getting data from wearable devices and integrating that into professional systems. That could be a with a doctor or a hospital.”
Furthermore, Michahelles is working closely with the automation team on College Road East to use the same technology to allow humans and robots to work together to accomplish tasks in industrial settings. Unlike trying to understand the entire world or the entire World Wide Web, a robot, or perhaps a robot together with a human and a wearable device, would only have to understand a few things.
“Machines simply have to get a notion about where a worker is, where the hands are, and where the limbs are in order to support the worker. Another one would be a higher level description of the task that the person is working on. It’s not modeling the entire world, it’s constraining it to a specific assembly task, like `let’s build a door.’”
Another Route 1 Corridor company with its foot in the wearable door is Voxware, a Quakerbridge Road-based firm that specializes in voice recognition technology. The company makes headsets that are used in retail stores and warehouses to direct workers to where they are needed and allow them to accomplish tasks hands free, thus allowing them to work faster and more efficiently.
Voxware sells headsets to the publishing, restaurant, grocery, automotive, food service, and pharmaceutical industries. It recently provided its Cloud Voice Management Suite to the Food Bank of New Jersey, where it says the headsets have reduced the length of packing shifts by 30 percent.
If the work going on at these companies is any indication, smartphones are just the beginning of the mobile computing revolution. In a few years, the iphone may seem as clunky and obsolete as a land line, and computers will be more integrated with everyday life than anyone thought possible.
VEESAG Mobile, 675 Route 1 South, North Brunswick 08902; 732-333-1876. Rajendra Sadhu, founder. www.veesag.com.
Universal Display Corporation, 375 Phillips Boulevard, Ewing 08618; 609-671-0980; fax, 609-671-0995. Steven Abramson, CEO. www.udcoled.com.
Siemens Corporation, 755 College Road East, Princeton 08540; 609-734-6500. www.usa.siemens.com.
Voxware, 33705 Quakerbridge Road, Suite 210, Hamilton 08619; 609-570-6800. Keith Phillips, president and CEO. www.voxware.com.