‘Reinvented’ IBM Announces Clients in Consumer Electronics Industry

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Big Blue is not a big player in the consumer electronics industry, but IBM's CEO, Ginni Rometty, says that is about to change.

IBM has traditionally been focused on enterprise hardware and massive business systems. But now, the company is eyeing a new source of revenue:. You. And me. And what the tech giant's CEO, Ginni Rometty, counts as the "millions, if not billions," of other consumers who are using the products and services comprising the Internet of Things.

During her keynote address to a packed room at the Consumer Technology Association's CES conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Rometty announced that IBM is partnering with three major enterprises—active apparel brand Under Armour, medical technology firm Medtronic and SoftBank, a Japanese provider of telecom and Internet services—on projects that leverage IBM's computing capabilities.

IBM's Ginni Rometty

IBM has invested approximately $30 billion to develop its analytics capabilities via its Watson platform. Watson mines large stores of data using artificial-intelligence tools, such as pattern recognition and natural language processing, to perform what the company calls cognitive computing.

Many of IBM's enterprise customers in the industrial IoT space, including Airbus, are using Watson to run analytics for a range of applications. Now, IBM wants to help makers of consumer-facing products leverage that analytical power as well. "With wearables, sensors [and connected] cars, data is everywhere," Rometty told the thousands of attendees at CES—many of whom are launching IoT products or have done so in recent years. "But what will differentiate you is understanding that data."

Through this new focus on the IoT sector in the consumer realm, Rometty said, "you'll see a reinvented IBM emerging."

Under Armour is utilizing Watson's cognitive computing power to analyze information collected in Record, the fitness app it launched last year that culls data from an astounding 160 million fitness-device users.

Users passively send fitness and sleep data to Record via their wearable devices. Record can collect data from all major brands of fitness trackers, including those offered in Under Armour's new Healthbox product—a $400 kit featuring a connected weight scale, an activity tracker and a separate heart-rate monitor. Users can also upload information regarding nutrition and, through a connected scale, their weight. A new addition to the app lets a user rate how he or she is feeling each day on a scale of one to ten. Using Watson, Record will be able to help users set fitness or weight goals, Under Armour's CEO, Kevin Plank, told the crowd. What's more, it will even suggest taking a day off from the gym if Watson determines that a user has been excessively stressing his or body.

Watson will be guided by millions of data streams, Plank explained. "I see that there are 4.6 million males [in Record] who are just like the user," he said. "Their average run is 4.1 miles, they sleep an average of 6.38 hours, they have an average calorie intake of 2,174, etc. So if the user wants to lose 10 pounds in a certain amount of time, then he can [use Record to] dial in what he needs to do to attain that [goal]."

Medtronic and IBM first announced their partnership in April 2015, but on Wednesday, the companies reported that Medtronic, starting this summer, will begin using Watson to analyze data collected by its devices that continuously monitor glucose levels. Doing so, said Omar Ishrak, Medtronic's CEO, could help users avoid becoming severely hypoglycemic, which can be fatal.

Each day, users will enter into the app descriptions of the foods that they have eaten or are about to consume. By analyzing a user's health history, Ishrak explained, Watson might suggest that the individual eat different types or quantities of food, in order to avoid developing low blood sugar.

SoftBank, which last year rolled out a robot called Pepper—which it sells both to consumers and to businesses that are beginning to use it to perform customers service at retail stores and banks—is utilizing Watson to help the robot understand the needs, interests and emotions of the humans with whom it interacts.

"If we can combine a human-like customer interface with Watson, we can make a real customer-service robot," said Kenichi Yoshida, SoftBank's VP of business development. The firm believes it can attract customers in the hospitality, health-care and education sectors.

Whether for enterprise or consumer applications, the Internet of Things is a major focal point for IBM. Last month, the company rolled out some new IoT-related products and also announced a new Watson IoT unit headquarters in Munich, where it invites clients to access IBM's cloud-based Internet of Things software platform for testing, developing and building IoT applications and solutions.