7 June 2017
Robo-beer and the Internet of Terriers See CeBIT Keep its Quirkiness
From digitally connected to dogs to high-tech home brewing, CeBIT remained reliably roguish, while still providing houseroom for more high-minded pursuits, such as inspection drones, electronic parking permits and 3D printing systems.
CeBIT, the world's largest computer expo, has taken place in Hanover every year since 1986. While the event has a long tradition of delivering firsts, the 2017 show was almost certainly unique in showcasing something of considerable interest to beer drinkers – the world's first fully automated home brewery.
The Brewie system, which costs about US$1,800 and will brew up 20 litres of beer at a time, is the brainchild of Marcell Pal, a Hungarian inventor. He hit upon the idea after sampling the home brew of Andrew Winter, a friend and fellow beer enthusiast.
Recalling his light-bulb moment, he said: "I was amazed that his beer was quite so good and so very cheap – he made it for about 40 cents a bottle. When I asked why he hadn't made more, he explained that it involved a very time-consuming process.
"It was then that the idea struck me of automating the process. At first, we planned just to make a machine for our own use, but then we realised there was potentially a far bigger market. We did some research and the feedback was very positive. The Americans, in particular, went crazy about the idea."
The two then launched a company at the beginning of 2014, with US$750,000 raised via a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo. Although Brewie is based in Budapest, the actual machines are made in Thailand, where Pal says he has found a factory with the necessary skills to meet the high specifications required.
The company's first brewing kits – stainless-steel boxes about 40cm high and 80cm long – shipped at the end of November last year. To date, some 250-300 units have been sold, primarily in Europe, but also to customers in the US and Australia. According to Pal, about half of his customers are experienced brewers, while the remainder are complete beginners. At present, the company is selling to home brewers, as well as to restaurants and large brewers wanting to experiment on a small scale. It even had an order from a pharmacist.
Summing up the appeal of the system, Pal said: "The main difference between Brewie and its rival systems is that it is the only one that can handle all of the steps required to brew beer, from mashing to boiling. It is also the only machine where you can start as a beginner, knowing nothing about brewing, and then acquire all of the skills required to become a real brewer."
As part of the service, the company supplies the recipes and all of the required raw ingredients, from malt to hops to yeast. It also provides bottles and five-litre mini-kegs for storing the finished beer. Once users gain sufficient confidence, they can then start experimenting with their own recipes, while being free to exchange their experiences with other Brewie owners via the company's website.
While Brewie was something of a one-off, there were plenty of more conventional themes apparent among the hundreds of exhibitors attending CeBIT 2017. One that was particularly hard to miss was the high volume of drones, with skilled remote piloting of these particular technical innovations in evidence both inside and outside the show hall.
A particularly impressive specimen was being showcased by the Düsseldorf-based Spectair Group – the Elios. Manufactured by Switzerland's Flyability, Spectair is an official reseller for the drone, which was billed as "the first collision-tolerant flying robot".
Introducing the product, Lukas Kremkau, Spectair's specialist Drone Pilot, said: "The Elios is basically an indoor inspection drone, suitable for use with tanks, vessels, chimneys and really any kind of structure where there is a very limited amount of space and a need to access the inaccessible."
The drone, which is 39cm across (smaller than the smallest manhole), comes with active illumination as standard, as well as an HD camera that can get to within 20cm of any surface being inspected, delivering a resolution of less than 0.2mm per pixel. It also comes with a protective cage that allows it to get as close to its target as possible without its safety being compromised.
Highlighting the system's value for money, Kremkau said: "While the Elios is not cheap – coming in at about US$28,000 – we made our investment back after using it for just four projects.
"Back in January, I inspected a 20,000 sq m tank, with the whole process taking only a day to complete. The only alternative to using the drone would have been to build up scaffolding inside the tank. This would have taken several weeks and cost about $112,000. We did it for just $3,500."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Internet of Things (IoT) was another dominant theme at this year's event, with one company – Tokyo-based Soracom – even managing to reinvent it as the Internet of Dogs and Cows. Founded in 2014 by several veterans of Japan's telecoms and cloud industries, the company now has offices in Copenhagen and Singapore and customers in 120 countries.
In the past 18 months, Soracom has raised more than US$30 million to fund its growth, securing the position as Japan's leading IoT connectivity provider. Its sim cards and data-transmission systems are now routinely used to monitor the safety of elderly people, track mobility devices, connect surveillance cameras, check on the status of wind and sun-powered street-light networks and to operate a remote "smart lock" door security service.
It also has a client that specialises in "wired up" jackets for dogs. Inside each jacket is a sensor connected to the net, which constantly updates the owner as to their dog's location and well-being.
A rather more commercial version of this set-up has been adopted by Farmnote, a Japanese company specialising in IoT systems for the dairy and livestock sectors. This sees Soracom's sensors used to monitor the health, location and mating patterns of a number of cattle herds, often requiring real-time coverage of thousands of animals.
Commenting on the company's diverse client base, Sandra Roosna, Soracom's Marketing and Business Development Director, said: "We now have more than 5,000 customers – including a number of extremely large businesses, such as Sharp and Nikon – and we strive to provide them all with a high level of data security.
"For small businesses, it's sometimes even more critical to provide them with a secure solution. Essentially, our aim is to democratise IoT, making it affordable to everyone, while keeping the security level as high as possible. To this end, all of our customers are privately connected and completely separate from the publicly available internet."
Connectivity is also the primary offer of Parkd, an Antwerp-based company that provides parking-payment services to more than 100 towns and cities across Belgium and the Netherlands. Introducing his company's services, Co-founder Olivier de Clercq said: "What we offer is a patent-pending parking solution using an on-board diagnostics [OBD] device that has been installed in every car manufactured since 2001.
"You can plug it into your diagnostic ports and it's like a secret gateway. It comes with GPS-compatibility and a sim card and, once it's plugged in, you can pay for your on-street parking automatically. That means you never need to feed parking meters, use an app or send a text message. You just park your car and forget about it."
Parkd began life as a side-project to a fleet-tracking project Pickmeup, its sister company, was conducting on behalf of a number of large logistics companies. Recalling those early days, de Clercq said: "While the clients liked our fleet software, they felt our parking system was truly unique. At that point, we stopped developing the fleet software and concentrated on the parking applications."
At the moment the system is only available to business users, such as rental car companies, all of which pay €9.95 (US$11.20) a month for each device in line with their two-year contracts. Looking to the future, de Clercq said: "At present the devices are expensive, but we are hoping to partner with a number of telecoms and insurance companies, allowing us to make them free to consumers, who then pay a monthly subscription fee of €2-3."
Alongside these mainstream themes were plenty of one-off instances of true technological wackiness, including the iClone. Essentially a combination of a rapid body scanner and a 3D printing system, the iClone produces full-colour miniature models of people who have been scanned, which can then be taken home for upwards of €70 a time.
The company behind the iClone is Kvint-R, a Hungarian office-equipment and printer distributor. Explaining its shift into the "Mini-me" sector, Jószef Spenger, a Director of the company's 3D division, said: "About three years ago, we started importing 3D printers from the US. Looking for applications for our hardware, we set out to develop our own 3D body scanner, which is now recognised as the fastest in the world. In total, scanning takes just 15 seconds, while rendering takes a further one and a half minutes, then we are completely ready to print. By comparison, other systems take three to four hours just to complete the rendering."
Currently, only two Kvint-R scanners have been produced. While one is being touted around the relevant trade fairs, the other is in the company's Budapest studio, where it is used to make mini-models as tourist souvenirs. A complete system costs $43,000, with Spenger emphasising it has applications beyond just making mini-models of passing clients. In particular, he says, it could be used to create digital clones of people for use in virtual-reality programmes.
By contrast, the products made by Berlin-based Sonnenrepublik are both considerably cheaper and, arguably, somewhat more useful. According to Ian Hansen, the company's Head of Sales, Sonnenrepublik basically offers "solar solutions" – solar panels for consumer use, including solar covers for smart phones and tablets, solar sunshades to power notebooks, LED lights, cooling systems and audio devices. It also provides backpack solar panels suitable for powering electronic devices on the hoof, solar roofs for golf carts and other electric vehicles, and solar road surfaces for larger-scale energy requirements.
The company's small solar wallet will recharge a phone in four hours, while a slightly larger one can do the job in two, with prices for these chargers in the €59-119 range. The company also offers 12-volt solar panel chargers for laptops for about €190.
Sonnenrepublik, which is marking its fifth anniversary this year, buys its solar cells from the Philippines before assembling its products in Turkey. It sells primarily into the German market, although it also has customers in Austria Switzerland and Australia.
If Sonnenrepublik has the answer to the flat phone battery problem that afflicts most of us at one time or another, then JustMe, an Austrian start-up, has the solution to a modern conundrum that few of us have ever probably pondered upon – just how do you get rid of surplus bystanders when you want to take a picture? Well, Tomas Musil, JustMe's chief executive, believes he has invented a video algorithm that can do just that.
Clearly a touch evangelical about his product, Musil said: "People, cars, animals, tourists… they will all disappear and you will get a clear picture of the background, whether it's a church, a landmark building or a monument. You can also manipulate images in ways that are not otherwise possible, producing a shot that leaves only the moving objects in focus or only the moving objects out of focus, for instance."
CeBIT 2017 took place from 20-24 March at the Hanover Exhibition Grounds.
Martyn Cornell, Special Correspondent, Hanover