To say 2020 has been an unusual year is a gross understatement. Putting the human impact aside, it has been absolutely crazy and has upended business plans in virtually every industry. However, as Sun Tzu, the 500 BC Chinese philosopher and military strategist said, “In chaos, there is opportunity.” So too has the current situation brought new opportunities in 2020 with effects that will have significant reach into 2021.
Dramatic things have been happening in the medical technology industry in 2020 which will ripple into 2021. Smart connected devices, the core of IoT technology, are pretty much standard operating procedure these days for any new medical devices. Two areas in particular will see activity in 2021.
Breathing-assist devices, some with smart connected features and some without, are clearly needed at a simpler and less expensive level than traditional high-end ventilators. These devices cover the gamut, including more targeted ventilation assist devices in healthcare facilities and hospitals and low-end devices to improve breathing for everyone struggling with the use of masks.
Remote health enhancements will be big in 2021. Even though in-office visits have become safer, remote healthcare is not going away. It is a lower cost way of providing services and using healthcare provider networks. Technology enhancements to make this more practical, safe, secure and effective will include device-level sensors that can be widely deployed at home, and improved smart software tools and hardware to better communicate between healthcare providers and patients at home or in assisted living facilities. Breakthroughs in this area will likely come in 2021. Manufacturers have made incremental improvement in wearable devices, particularly as they relate to health monitoring, but a shakeout in the industry is in progress. Commoditization is underway and the real value, while growing modestly, is often in the replacement and upgrades of existing products in the hands of consumers.
Radio frequency services
In 2020, the major cellular carriers started to announce the availability of 5G services. As with anything this new, the early availability claims greatly overstate current availability. First, much of the early 5G availability is not at the high speed and wide bandwidth of the vision. For most users in the U.S., the currently available 5G service is only marginally faster than the latest 4G. This is not to say that there are not glimmers of the potential of true 5G performance in a few major metropolitan areas, but even then, the availability of this high-performance network is in very limited places. The range of high performance 5G transceivers is very short; hence, the infrastructure effort to make this widely available is substantial and expensive. However, all is not lost. Expect that true high-performance 5G will gradually become more widely available in 2021 and over the course of the next few years.
One of the other areas critically important in the 5G world is the deployment of CAT-M1 radios. While the radio technology has progressed rapidly in 2020, providers still lag in offering attractive data plans for low bandwidth, low power IoT solutions for massive numbers of devices. To be fair, the scenario of offering extreme low cost for low data plans is problematic to the cellular carriers. Their business models have, for years, been built on ever increasing data usage at the scale of cell phone devices. Expect in 2021 that the cellular carriers will figure out the business models for data plans to help make mass IoT deployments of CAT-M1 radio solutions financially attractive.
AI and augmented reality
Organizations already roll out AI and augmented reality (AR), and this trend will continue in 2021. Today, while low forms of limited AI are currently deployed, machine intelligence will continue to evolve towards a more general level of intelligence in 2021. Despite predictions that the arrival of the point at which machine general intelligence matches human general intelligence is soon, the reality is probably further out in the future. Though current AI, which is referred to as weak AI, continues to evolve rapidly. Sensors and smart connected devices make the role of IoT more significant, even with weak AI that is improving.
AR is also evolving and is enabled by IoT solutions. The ever-increasing breadth of smart communicated sensors in the environment makes it possible to layer useful, actionable information over what a person sees. Significant development in this domain will continue.
Vehicles continue to become increasingly capable IoT appliances. Electric vehicle availability has continued to increase in 2020, and it looks like it will continue to grow. While there may be no major breakthroughs, we should expect that smart connected vehicles will continue to evolve in 2021. While industry leaders had lofty visions of autonomous vehicles in the near-term, the unbridled optimism has been reined in a bit. However, there will continue to be evolutionary improvement in 2021 and beyond. Part of this improvement will come from a combination of improved algorithms, but also from enhanced IoT sensors.
If you are reading this, there is a good chance you are doing so from home or during more limited time in a traditional office. While many people expect there will be a gradual return to fulltime office spaces, for much of 2021, if not all the year, most knowledge workers will continue to work remotely for all or most at work hours.
Services like Zoom have jumped to the forefront of work life and to be highly capable. Expect that new IoT solutions will develop in 2021 to make remote work more efficient and secure. New products have already been released and are in development by companies, such as Google, to make work from home and education from home a better experience. There will be much focus on better enablement of home-based work, education and healthcare.
While 2020 certainly threw a curveball at us all, it has created a myriad of new opportunities. IoT is central to many of the responses to fill the gaps created by work adjustments during the pandemic. IoT is also key to the ultimate vision of ubiquitous electric and autonomous vehicle deployment. 2021 brings promise along with anxiety over the continuing pandemic crisis. Leaders in IoT can help build solutions that will add of value during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
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