For Rockville’s Hillcrest Labs, focus shifts to smartphones, wearable devices at CES 2014


Chad Lucien, senior vice president at Hillcrest Labs, with a wrist-mounted activity tracker protype. The Rockville company is developing software for sensors in wearable devices. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)

The Consumer Electronics Show is an annual pilgrimage for Rockville-based Hillcrest Labs. The company reserves a suite in a Las Vegas hotel where potential business partners cycle through to learn of its advances in managing motion-activated sensors.

But the makeup of those visitors is changing. After focusing for years on the slow-growing smart television market, Hillcrest Labs has found more promising applications for its technology in smartphones, tablets and wearable devices.

Founded in 2001, Hillcrest Labs has developed software for motion-enabled sensors that to date has been built into television remotes. The technology allows a consumer to point the remote like a laser pointer and make channel selections with a click.

Though the technology is shipped in products made by LG, TCL and Hisense, the Internet TV market has yet to take off in North America as quickly as executives at the 50-person company might have hoped.

Chad Lucien, Hillcrest Labs’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, discussed the company’s plans for those markets ahead of the company’s trip to CES this week. Below are excerpts from that interview.

What opportunities exist for Hillcrest Labs in the mobile market?

Accelerometers have been in smartphones since the beginning, but the use of these sensors has become much more significant and important. As more sensors began to be added, it became necessary to have a higher degree of integration.

The sensor companies aren’t in a position to provide software to manage sensors from themselves as well as [from] all different companies. A sensor hub is a relatively new category of products that has emerged to manage all of these sensors, not just motion sensors, on these devices.

So you’ve developed software to manage the multiple sensors inside mobile gadgets?

The software is being consolidated into one place. We’re launching our software in smartphones early [this] year. The entry into that market has gone well. The time from market entry to revenue was frankly much shorter than it was in the TV market this time around.

You said wearable devices present an emerging market for you. How important is that market at this point?

The wearable market is quite nascent. There’s a lot of buzz about ... fitness monitors and smart watches. These products, though, are really at their earliest stages of market entry. There’s a real opportunity there to add more sensors and a higher level of processing capabilities. We’ve been working on some new developments and products to address some of the activity monitoring functions that are necessary for these wearable devices.

How important is it for Hillcrest Labs to enter the wearable device market quickly?

Generally, in these markets, you want to move pretty quickly, because there is a base of knowledge coming out of the smartphone market [that will be applied to wearable devices]. The time from starting point to more successful, fully developed products is going to be shorter.

We need to be in a position to capture the software designs early. You want to get the [original equipment manufacturers] to use your stuff before they decide there’s no one out there that has the technology, so they make it themselves.

Will wearable devices follow the path of smart televisions or smartphones, in terms of consumer adoption?

I think the wearable devices have the potential to take off in a bigger way than the smart TVs. I think it’s going to take a little bit of time to get products that are sufficiently mass market friendly. Today, I think they’re really targeted to tech enthusiast more than anything.

One of the trends that’s very interesting is people are very focused on sleep analysis and having wearable devices to help people improve sleep habits and overall activity and eating habits. There is a cultural shift that has to happen there [for people] to be willing to have all that data collected about their activities and movements, and have the data be crunched by that third party.

What about smart TVs, will they ever take off in a meaningful way?

We’re seeing an enormous amount of adoption of smart TVs in the Chinese market. The Chinese market is obviously a growing market with increasing consumer spending available, and the Chinese [original equipment manufacturers] have really risen dramatically in their global penetration of the TV market.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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