Acheap tablet computer, a “health necklace” that will transmit key vital statistics of the wearer in real time, and imaging and diagnostic machines that are much less expensive than those currently available—these are some of the products Wipro Ltd hopes to launch.
In India, there has never been a shortage of aspirations as far as technology is concerned, but not much has come of many of these dreams.
Wipro, best known as India’s third largest information technology (IT) services business, is hoping to change that. The company has always been involved with hardware—it makes laptops, servers, and even supercomputers.
Thanks to Apple Inc., the tablet has not only become an object of desire, it has also disrupted the computer market, affecting sales of the personal computer.
But at a starting price of Rs.29,500 in India, it’s beyond the reach of a lot of people.
“Can you make a $600 iPad (he meant tablet) for, say, $35? That is the question. We are looking at bringing the total cost of ownership down,” Anurag Srivastava, the chief technology officer and senior vice-president for Wipro’s global IT business, said in an interview.
A proof of the concept is expected to be ready in about nine to 12 months time, developed jointly as part of Wipro’s partnership with the Leuven, Belgium-based applied research organization imec. Wipro and imec last month announced a research and development agreement to “co-innovate and build next-generation intelligent systems”.
As part of the exercise, the Applied Research in Intelligent Systems Engineering (ARISE) laboratory will be set up on Wipro’s Electronic City campus in September.
Cost will be a critical factor as affordability in emerging markets is one of the underlying themes of the partnership with imec.
The projects have a social aspect to them, Srivastava said.
The tablet, for instance, is aimed at the rural and mass education segment, which fits in with the main thrust of Wipro chairman Azim Premji’s philanthropy—learning.
The device is being developed with the main aim of creating a low-cost product with applications in education as well as the “government sector”, he said.
“We’re looking at two-three proofs-of-concept in a year’s time. It’s not just a deployable consumer product, right? It’s about establishing that you can solve the process problem at ‘x’ dollars, as a total cost,” he said.
The company declined to provide additional details or specifications of the tablet, as they were still being worked out. A hardware partner would be identified later for “production in volume”, he said.
Wipro’s “health necklace” is a string of sensors that will transmit data to relatives and doctors. Cost is again a critical element.
“The ‘health necklace’ has to be accessible to a 50-year-old guy in a village, maybe with a small insurance cover,” Srivastava said.
If affordability is one theme, miniaturization is another, especially in the context of the general expectation that more devices and sensors, including analogue ones, will get connected, thereby communicating with each other.
“This applies to the pen you are carrying and the watch you are wearing. The aggregation point may be your mobile phone. But still, everything is connected. Technology miniaturization is critical for reaching into this world,” he said.
This also means that emerging devices and sensors have to be resistant to weather and other conditions, and achieve high performance with low power consumption. “That will take a lot of engineering,” he added.
What helps is that there is an increasing realization in research circles of the importance of developing products specifically for emerging markets.
“In emerging markets, key issues of affordability, reliability and even usability have to be thought of differently,” said Ganesh Ramamoorthy, research director at Gartner.
“I would expect to see more and more of such partnerships, with one bringing in established hardware research capabilities, and others, like Wipro, bringing in their software and product engineering capabilities, besides local knowledge, which will be critical from a usability and user-interface perspective,” he added.
The “health necklace” is likely to be launched ahead of the tablet, Srivastava said.
“In these products, you see a sensor dimension, a mobility dimension and a software application dimension. Wipro will bring in the value of mobility and application integration and help in design so total cost of ownership is low,” Srivastava said.
He said the partnership with imec was an equal one, but declined to share financial details.
About 25-30 people with specialized knowledge were involved currently, and the number is expected to go up to 100-120 in two to three years.
The collection of information such as electrocardiogram data, heart rate, blood oxygen levels and body water content from a mobile subject is already possible.
The Wipro necklace will use imec’s proprietary ultra-low power, bio-sensing application-specific integrated circuit and low-power commercial wireless platforms to capture and communicate vital health parameters to patients as well as healthcare providers.
ARISE is also working on disruptive imaging and diagnostic solutions for the medical and manufacturing sectors based on nanotechnology that would make these services more affordable than they are now.
Imec is a semiconductor and nanoelectronics research institute with 1,900 people and revenue of €285 million in 2010, with offices in Europe, China, US and Japan.
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