With the U.S. mobile phone market near total saturation, carriers and mobile developers are looking for new ways to cash in. A growing number of engineers have begun looking at different messaging programs, everything from a diaper that alerts parents when it needs changing to a device notifying dairy farmers when cows are in heat.
Current “wireless penetration” is around 90%, but carriers are pushing to get that number up to 300% or 400%, meaning everyone in the U.S. will have to have multiple wireless devices, and these various notification systems might just be the way to do that. Executives at Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) are projecting that, by the end of the decade, there will be 50-60 billion connected devices, compared to today’s four billion.
24eight, the start-up developing wireless diapers, embeds its product with a cellular chip that can send a text message to a mobile phone when it becomes wet. The company says its diapers would only cost 2 cents more each than normal diapers. AT&T (NYSE:T) is currently running a trial for another 24eight product — “SmartSlippers” — that incorporates an “accelerometer” into the soles of slippers, one much like that of an iPhone (NASDAQ:AAPL) that allows it to respond to movement. The slippers can then alert any pre-selected recipient when the slippers’ wearer gets “wobbly”. The slippers, which would cost about $100 a month with a cellular plan of $25 a month, are being targeted toward the elderly. Verizon Wireless has also recently made an investment in 24eight.
One product already on the market is the GlowCap, made by Vitality Inc., a $10 pill bottle that will glow, beep, phone and text you if you miss a dose. It even incorporates a button that sends a refill signal to the GlowCap customer service center, which will in turn call the customer and help them refill the prescription. It can be set to alert other family members or even doctors if their patient isn’t keeping up with his or her prescription.
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Amazon‘s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Kindle was one of the first non-phone devices that could access a cellular connection but that didn’t require a service plan with a monthly bill, instead embedding the cost of the service used to download books in the purchase price. And carriers think that there is a market for more products that utilize wireless in different and unique ways, especially products like the Kindle that don’t require buyers to sign up for a wireless plan. With all these new technologies, it would be a bit hubristic, or at least misguided, to expect consumers to purchase half a dozen devices and sign contracts and make monthly payments for each. But by embedding the cost of the wireless service into the cost of the product, devices like the wireless diaper have the potential to take off.