Thinfilm unveils a smart bottle label - and the technology behind it

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed March 11, 2015
On the hunt for eye-opening enterprisey stuff at the Mobile World Congress, I tracked down Thinflim. I got the skinny on their recently-announced smart bottle project with Diageo - and found out why a "little bit smart" label has the chance to change an industry

When is a wine bottle more than a wine bottle? When it's a "little bit smart." At the Mobile World Congress 2015, Thinfilm formally announced its newest offering (OpenSense) with global drinks brand Diageo.

While in Barcelona, I had a chance to tape a short podcast with Thinfilm's CEO Dr. Davor Sutija (pictured right), where he revealed some of the secrets behind Thinfilm's printed electronics, and how this wine bottle label is a smart object that can scale to a point where it is now financially viable.

Sutija hails from the Norway tech startup scene, which includes Opera Software and Fast Search and Transfer (acquired by Microsoft in 2008 for $1.2B). Sutija got to Norway in a roundabout way - as Matt Damon said in "Good Will Hunting," he had to see about a girl. His wife hailed from Norway, so like any sensible fellow, he followed her there. Out of the re-inventions of the startup scene emerged Thinfilm, a printed electronics firm now listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange (as of February 27th, 2015).

Why build a "little bit smart" device?

So with all the fuss about "smart devices," why does Thinfilm focus on devices that are only a "little bit smart?" Sutija explains

Many people have a conception of the Internet of Things as machines talking to other machines. Then the question is, 'How smart do you really want your toaster to be?' Sometimes, it is horses for courses. Thinfilm is trying to extend the Internet of Things to ordinary objects, making things just a little bit smart. Some of those Internet of Things apps you refer to are made for complex systems and wearables, but others are about making something as simple as an NFC tag a little bit dynamic.

The beauty of a "little bit smart" object, as thin as a wine label, is that it can scale to the level a global manufacturer needs, and not break the bank. Sutija:

Using printed printed NFC tags, we can scale to the number of bottles a global bottle maker needs. Diageo produces over three billion alcoholic beverage bottles every year. They would be consuming 10 percent of the world's silicon ships if they were to try to use silicon conventional electronics to be add intelligence to their bottles.

Thinfilm's products all fit into the category of printed electronics, which Sutija defines as a specialized set of techniques that allows for the creation of new "smart" sensors and tags, but using traditional print manufacturing methods and old school "roll-to-roll" machines. Sutija cites Thinfilm's partnership with Xerox as an example - Thinfilm will print "memory labels" with to the tune of a billion memory labels per year by 2016.

Why QR and bar codes don't get the job done

So why are QR and bar codes inadequate? Sutija:

QR and bar codes have their place, but they are a static, unique identifier. They don't change state. What is really cool about being able to create an electronic label, is you can detect things. You can detect for example if a temperature has been exceeded, if a time has elapsed, or in the case of our OpenSense product, whether a bottle has been opened. You're adding dynamic information, active information to something that was originally passive. You don't have to photograph it. All you need to do is use the NFC in your Android phone and tap it.

In the case of Diageo, the wine bottle label relays two states: open and closed. But those two states make a huge difference from a business model perspective. The "closed" state means the bottle is communicating information relevant to the distribution process. Whereas the "open" means the consumer is now drinking the wine, so engaging the consumer are now viable:

When the bottle is in the closed state, you can use it for logistics tracking, but you can also use it in the situation where the user of the mobile device is in a buying situation. Imagine if you are in a store, and you tap a bottle to determine if that's the brand that you want to buy. You get a little bit more understanding about where the whiskey was made, how long it was aged, and then later, once you open that as a consumer, you get for example, tips on how to serve the whiskey and how to mix that to make the best cocktails.

The "dual state" bottle adds another personalization angle based on the phone's geo-location services. From a user's interaction with the bottle, you know if the person is in a particular retail location or demographic area, or of they are consuming the wine at home.

Sometimes, "small data" is perfect for the job at hand

One final point: Sutija is not a fan of "big data," he's a fan of "small data." Instead of machines that constantly send out a barrage of status updates, Thinfilm's electronics are designed to communicate only the crucial status updates:

We're all about small data. Think about some of these wrist bands that are smart; they're measuring your pulse, and they're giving you a lot of data logging. In some cases, that's information overload. What we look for are exceptions - and we communicate those exceptions that are actionable moments. We're alerting you that a temperature is too high on your baby, or for example that somebody requires care because they're not feeling well... Or if you have a logistics chain, there are going to be "changes of custody" events. In those changes of custodies, you can check that the device still has been properly maintained. That means if there are problems in logistics, you can identify them to that link in the chain.

Final thoughts

Other compelling Thinfilm use cases relate to public health and safety  - Sutija points to the recent milk powder scare in China, where the packaging looked ok, but the contents were suspect. The ability for a consumer to quickly detect via their phone whether a product has been legally opened or not is a potentially good use case.

Another customer example from Thinfilm is from the pharma industry, where Thinfilm sensors based on time and temperature are in use. When vaccines are sent to Africa, for example, 30 percent are not administered because of the risk they haven't been kept at the proper temperature. As Sutija says, "By adding temperature sensing to pharma packaging, we can help improve the safety of administration of pharma products, whether they're vaccines or oncological agents."

With technology that's ready for prime time now, and a diverse set of use cases, I suspect this is not the last we'll hear of Thinfilm. Granted, some of these use cases push the envelope towards what I call the "creepy side of personalization," but Sutija is believes that these scenarios actually put power back into the hands of consumers. Thinfilm is determined to avoid the spammy side of personalization. Sutija cites studies done by the NFC Forum that indicates consumers don't appreciate getting pinged by 20 different real-time offers in a retail outlet (as happened to some of us at the Mobile World Congress this week).

But Sutija believes that "NFC tapping" will soon become a natural consumer habit, and if your product's data is available when called upon, you can avoid the spam scenario:  "When people need information, they will tap. Tapping is already conventional. With the introduction of Apple Pay, and now Samsung Pay, a couple of days ago, people are tapping their phone using NFC to make payments. It's a natural part of how people use phones now." If so, that bodes well for Thinfilm, and the prospect of a "little bit smart" devices and labels.

Here's the embedded version of my Thinfilm on-site podcast:

(You can download the podcast also, on my Busting the Omnichannel page)

Bonus: I’ve now posted a podcast with diginomica colleague Derek du Preez, Mobile World Congress 2015 – the Enterprisey and IoT Wrap.

This is the fourth in a series of posts I am doing on the standout apps I’ve seen at the Mobile World Congress, Barcelona. First piece: Can data-driven video fix the content relevance problem? Second piece: Augmented reality for business – present and future use cases from Metaio. Third: IoT simulation – SAP fixes the Barcelona fountain with predictive maintenance.

Image credits: all photos taken by Jon Reed.

Disclosure: diginomica has no financial relationship with Thinfilm. I was able to attend Mobile World Congress based on SAP funding my air travel and hotel expense, however, I set my own editorial agenda for most of the conference.