Emerging innovations for the electric utility industry – highlights from International CES 2014


By Matt Wakefield, Director Information & Communication Technology, Electric Power Research Institute

CES1I finally had an opportunity to attend the International CES show, which this year was held in Las Vegas January 7-10 – a long-time goal of mine. My primary goal was to explore emerging innovations that may be applicable to the electric utility industry.

The show had more than 150,000 attendees, with 3,200 exhibitors in over 2 million square feet of exhibit space. To put that into perspective, this is over 15 times larger than DistribuTECH. To me, the show felt like the “year of the connected gadget,” although not having attended in previous years, I have nothing to compare this show to. The range of gadgets was fairly broad and the primary opportunity I discovered was related to innovations to enhance electric utility worker performance, health and safety, but there were also a lot of communications related innovations, i.e. the Internet of Everything.

Communications technology

On the communications front, one area that stood out to me was Li-Fi (Light-Fidelity) or other variations of visible light communications (VLC). Other communication technologies prominent included powerline carrier (HomePlug and Home Grid or G.hn). On the Li-Fi front, I came across several demonstrations that showed the possibility of simple one-way communications through visible light using LEDs. The LED lights communicated data to a smart phone with a special sensor plugged into a dongle on the phone in a way that is imperceptible to the human eye.

CES2aIn a few demonstrations, a smart phone was waived under an LED light and it would instantly display product information that was communicated through the light signal. More advanced demonstrations showed the capability of high speed two-way communications between devices.  PSKEYSystems demonstrated transfer speeds up to 150 MBPS. For the consumer market, broadcasting HD video via light may become a potential solution.

At EPRI we are in early stages of exploring options to leverage visible light communications to provide data backhaul for field data such as line sensors or perhaps even metering data, but this is still very forward looking.

Home automation and energy management

I found much more about home automation than energy management. There seemed to be a growing prominence of showroom floor space that recognizes the benefits of interoperability. Both the ZigBee and Z-Wave Alliances had dedicated floor space showcasing products using those standards. Most products were focused on traditional home automation devices (security, etc.) and not a strong emphasis on energy management, but I did see a growing variety of controllable plugs.

In contrast to the International CES show, at DistribuTECH this year I saw much less ZigBee or Z-Wave as compared to OpenADR (Open Automatic Demand Response). There were over 20 vendors who had products using the emerging OpenADR 2.0 standard. The overall good news is that there seems to be growing momentum for standards-based approaches which will avoid vendor lock-in and increase innovation and customer choice.

Augmented reality and smart glasses

CES3There were a number of connected gadgets that seemed to blur functionality between various aspects of augmented reality and smart glasses. Augmented reality (AR) is a way to view superimposed data into a live view of the physical environment (like the first-down line shown on TV during football games). There are a number of AR applications we are working on at EPRI and also variations of products that could feed into enhancing electric utility worker performance.

In terms of products, Google Glass seems to be the standard most of these are being compared to although there is still not a commercially available product. Variations of Google Glass are available now or will be shortly. Vuzix is one of the leaders in AR targeting the commercial market and Metaio is an AR software and development company that claims to have over 65,000 developers using their software development kit (SDK) for AR applications. The elephant in the room is related to privacy. Some of these technologies are approaching a “creepiness” that needs to be discussed with the appropriate stakeholders. As this technology evolves, we need to understand the boundaries that are personally and legally acceptable to the public and our co-workers

CES4How about augmented reality contact lenses? Well, almost. Innovega, Inc. is developing augmented reality glasses that have a special bifocal contact lens that enables the viewer to clearly see the AR images in their AR glasses. The breakthrough here is the ability to focus and clearly see images on the glasses that are very close to the eye. Also, the design allows for more lightweight eyewear since the optics portion of the eyewear is incorporated into the contact lens. In talking with the inventor, they are still about two years away from production and the lenses still need to go through FDA approval. Anyway, worth keeping an eye one (pun intended…).

Eye tracking

CES5There were a number of eye tracking and motion sensing devices. I found this a potentially useful input device if it could be perfected. I didn’t get a chance to demo it myself, but I did have the opportunity to watch a few people. It didn’t seem to be at a maturity where it is intuitive yet and trouble free. It works by tracking tiny movements of the pupils.

THEEYETRIBE has an eye tracking bar to connect via USB. At $99 with a full software development kit, this is definitely a price point that can get products into developers’ hands to spur some innovation for hands-free tablet control or data input for utility workers.

About the author

Matt WakefieldMatt Wakefield is Director of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He has over 25 years of experience in the electric industry and his responsibilities include furthering the development of a modernized grid through application of standards, communication technology, integration and cyber security.