To cross a busy intersection safely, it’s best to have all of your senses alert. That way, if you don’t happen to see that oncoming truck ignoring the “Walk” sign, you will probably still hear it. In the case of a heavy cement mixer, you may even feel the low rumble of its powerful engine first.

In the Internet of Everything (IoE), a similar principle applies. We call it “sensor fusion,” and it involves combining two or more sensors — often of different types — to monitor a specific environment and offer actionable insights more intelligently. These could be cameras and Wi-Fi tags or weight-sensing shelves and ultrasonic imaging, to name just two combinations. Moreover, the combined sensor data can itself be fused with other information streams — for example, those relating to weather, operations, news, or social media.

The result? Highly informed, real-time decision making and richer customer experiences.

Until recently, sensor fusion has been mostly exploited in specialized devices such as robots, but it is now driving a revolution in enterprise systems. This will bring new life to entire industries and completely transform stores, manufacturing floors, and transportation corridors. By greatly improving the accuracy of their measurements, organizations will be able to offer rich new experiences and gain substantial competitive advantage.

Let’s look at some examples of how sensor fusion can help transform specific industries:

  1. Retailers would better understand shopper behavior if they could use a camera to sense a customer’s demographics upon store entry. The retailer could then employ Wi-Fi to sense the customer’s path while shopping. In addition, traceable tender would further correlate the customer’s market basket to any other purchase information on record, telling a complete 360-degree story of that shopper’s trip.
  2. Energy companies could plan maintenance cycles more efficiently by measuring vibrations in pipes while also analyzing videos for signs of pipe corrosion.
  3. Pharmaceutical companies could deploy pills embedded with chips to measure vital signs, then combine that data with patient records and social-media streams. The combined data would, for example, offer new insights into the effectiveness of drugs.
  4. A rail operator could improve safety and reduce operating costs through simultaneous monitoring of key track components via vibration, temperature sensors, and video, predicting the optimal time for maintenance and averting potentially disastrous malfunctions.

More fundamentally, sensor fusion can be used across industries to provide precise indoor location and navigation by combining GPS, accelerometers and gyros, Wi-Fi, and other radio sources. For example, a mobile device could switch from GPS tracking to dead reckoning if a signal were lost upon entering a building, then switch to Wi-Fi-based location system in areas of good coverage. In addition, accelerometers could determine the floor on which the device is located, and subtle variations in electromagnetic field patterns would give the building a “signature,” allowing ever more precise indoor location.

Precision indoor location in turn provides a wealth of detailed information that can yield new insights into traffic patterns, asset location, product availability, process efficiency, and human behavior. This will enable a new generation of rich interactive experiences and operational excellence. For example, precision indoor location can offer retailers a detailed picture of conversion rates, spending per minute, or margin per minute in specific areas as compared with the average for the store’s total floor space.

In addition to providing unprecedented insight and fostering operational excellence, sensor fusion powers a wide range of new experiences. Here are two examples:

  1. Diabetics can receive tailored recommendations on which drink to purchase from a vending machine. This can be based on their medical histories (linked from their phones), combined with analysis of their breath captured near the machine, and then tuned to provide the nutrients most needed at that moment.
  2. Hesitant electronics shoppers can be guided through the decision process on their mobile devices and converted, based on a personalized decision tree created from knowledge of products they have investigated, their body language, eye movements, and what they have bought in the past.

With sensor fusion set to transform industries, it is essential for CXOs to begin brainstorming opportunities for combining sensors and data streams — if they hope to remain competitive.

Here are some first steps for CXOs to consider:

  1. Look for ways to combine multiple types of sensors and actuators to gain competitive advantage — IoE has already matured to the point where single-sensor networks are prevalent, and advantage will accrue to those who pursue multi-sensor fusion today.
  2. Establish standards for sharing information from different types of sensors, aligned with the enterprise data model (i.e., a common “canonical” messaging format that provides consistency in data communications).
  3. Establish a data-quality team to validate and improve the accuracy of data from sensors and to look for ways they can work in concert to improve sensing accuracy, completeness, and reliability.
  4. Focus on creating new experiences that are most helpful to the target audience —make the experiences delightful and valuable first, and rich consumer insight will follow.
  5. Include wearable computing in the repertoire of sensors and actuators — wearables are poised to explode in popularity and provide valuable sources of input, as well as experience platforms.

Sensor fusion: it can lead you across the street or into a whole new realm of transformation. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how sensor fusion can impact your company or industry.


Shaun Kirby

Director and Chief Technology Officer

Cisco Consulting Services