Exploring the Idea Challenge Topics: Smart Spaces and Future Cloud

By David Knight |

For more coverage of the Idea Challenge, click here.

Eight cities, eight topics. The Idea Challenge is a truly European competition for entrepreneurs and people with big ideas. But why these topics? What is it about these areas of technology that the organisers, EIT ICT Labs, find interesting? What trends and challenges do these topics contain?

We’re taking a closer look at each of the eight topics, which themselves are split into two batches. This spring, it’s the turn of Helsinki, Rennes, Eindhoven and Munich; today we will consider the first two.

Helsinki: Smart Spaces

It’s no surprise that this particular topic has found a home in the Finnish capital; Helsinki has the biggest share of smart spaces startups across the whole EIT network, and that might be down to the large number of former Nokia engineers who left to create their own products in recent years.

According to Petri Liuha, EIT ICT Labs’ line manager in Helsinki, smart spaces refers to everyday working and living environments which are equipped with digital services which make them more intelligent or increase convenience for users in that space. Sounds a bit like Internet of Things? Petri describes a smart space as an enabler for IoT.

And there are three areas within smart spaces, he says, which are particularly appealing for innovative new ideas: retail space, the urban environment and office space. Fabio Belloni is the CMO of Quuppa, which has created a technology solution allowing for the tagging, tracking and monitoring of objects and people within any environment, indoor or outdoor. The founding team were all spun off from Nokia, and they found themselves ensconced with EIT ICT Labs within seven days of setting up shop.

The support they received, both in terms of the mundane like office space and supplies and in terms of business development and networking, has helped them establish not only their technology, but also a company to commercialise it.

Fabio also sees a trend in smart spaces towards improving the environment of public spaces, be they railway stations, airports, shopping malls, retails stores or sports stadiums.

“Typically in those environments, there is a lot of content that the owner of the store, for example, would like to provide to customers,” Fabio said.

“With location-based services, a very established concept, you get access to services based on where you are. You get the content based on the context you are in. But in order to be able to open up such service capabilities, you need to know exactly where the user is. And with indoor spaces, it’s much more challenging to do positioning than outdoors.”

One of the reasons for that is differing floor levels – with real-time advertising, sending someone an advert for a shop on the ground floor when they are on the third floor is not much use.

“You need to be accurate and precise to be able to provide an immersive experience for the user so they get access to all of the content in a discreet way.”

Plenty of scope, therefore, for budding entrepreneurs and engineers from across Europe to keep disrupting smart spaces.

As for working with EIT, Fabio has a lovely analogy: “They put you on the bike and they give you a push. Of course, you need to pedal yourself.”

Rennes: Future Cloud

Tua Huomo, the action line leader for future cloud, was quick to point out that the cities chosen for each topic act as a focus, not as an exclusive home – ideas for each topic will come from all parts of Europe. Nonetheless, Rennes is an ideal spot to house the future cloud final, as “one of the core places” where research and innovation take place in that space.

So what is future cloud, and how does it differ from cloud computing today? “Some people, when you are talking about cloud computing, associate it only with the cloud technology itself,” Tua said. “But the future cloud is about a lot more and it needs to provide a lot more for companies.”

The technology being developed will ultimately enable much more. There is a focus on increasing trust in the cloud, and in harnessing the potential of big data. “Cloud technology can enable that potential,” she added, including new business models.

As an example of future cloud, we can take Varaani and its COO, Juha Kaario. Varaani’s hybrid cloud storage service is an all-in-one solution that combines storage, backup and access. Users get a local Varaani storage service with a capacity of two or more terabytes, easy remote access through mobile clients and Web browsers, and a patented backup solution offering online backup to all content stored to the local file server. This service, Juha said, costs the same as you might expect to pay for just 200 gigabytes of cloud storage.

So is hybrid cloud an important part of future cloud? “Personal or hybrid cloud computing will evolve into a significant area of cloud computing,” Juha said. “The mainstream cloud services will continue to fall into the hands of the major size players, i.e. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, IBM etc; big companies with power to push prices down with sheer mass production.”

Cloud startups, on the other hands, will have still the role of bringing new innovation into the market.

“The same development will gradually go through all major cloud computing markets and smaller players will have to either focus on high technology opportunities, new innovations, niche markets or best available user experience in certain application areas.”

Hybrid cloud is one of these areas as it requires high technology innovations and can provide a better user experience. Users benefit from the speed of the local network while also enjoying cloud features.

And as for opportunity, don’t forget that personal computers are on the decline, and a mobile-only market is already being created in places like China, India and Africa. But there’s a need in the West as well, as Juha explained: “For example, Varaani is growing its sales to schools in Finland due to the fact they use more iPads in education and there is no local storage solutions offered by Apple. Storing to cloud services is not an optimal solution for schools for practical, privacy and legal reasons. Thus, having the hybrid cloud allows the schools to store everything locally just like they would do using iCloud, DropBox, etc, and still access everything the same way as they would from the cloud.”

Don’t forget, either, the biggest Internet topic over the past year or so, security and privacy, which Juha described as a “dark horse” and added: “We have witnessed a clear growth in the customer need in these issues after last year’s NSA revelations. I agree with many analysts that the business impact of the NSA scandal to cloud services will be multiple billions in the next few years and there will be new innovations surfacing because of a need for better privacy.”

All of which should hopefully spark some ideas for potential Idea Challenge entries, as should Juha’s two top tips for topics within future cloud that could provides surprises – games and personal wellbeing, the latter of which will see a need for more precise cloud services than current sport-related services such as SportTracker.

To apply for the Idea Challenge, click here. A rundown of the next two topics, health and wellbeing and cyber-physical systems, will follow next week.