Navigant Research Blog

It Takes a Lot of Energy to Catch ‘Em All

— July 29, 2016

Cloud ComputingPokémon GO has taken over the world. For those who have not yet played the game, it’s an augmented reality smartphone app where players walk around collecting Pokémon, battling in gyms, and generally having a good time. It’s also on the forefront of technological innovation, combining mapping data from Google with a narrative from the longstanding franchise. Niantic Labs, the developers of the game, have risen to the forefront of the technology world. Nintendo, one owner of the Pokémon franchise, became the most traded company by value of shares swapped on the Tokyo stock market this century. However, shortly after this rise, the stocks plummeted. Nintendo is not, after all, directly responsible for the development of the popular game and only owns a 32% stake in The Pokémon Company.

However, there is, as they say, a Butterfree in the ointment. The immense popularity of Pokémon GO has caused overrun servers and overheating data centers, making the free app crash every few hours. In addition, players are expressing frustration with the app’s  intense battery draining ability. A typical smartphone battery can drain in as few as 40 minutes of gameplay. The game is based entirely around GPS capabilities, which are notorious battery hogs. While GPS is running, a mobile device cannot enter a sleep state. In addition, communications channels with GPS satellites are very slow, and mapping software is processor-intensive, further compounding the energy intensity of such applications.

The intense data and energy use of the game has caused Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon, to offer Niantic assistance in operating its servers. This intense usage of GPS capabilities, smartphone data, and server capacity promises to bring Pokémon GO to the top spot in smartphone application energy usage. According to SimilarWeb, in its first 4 days of use, the number of Pokemon GO users nearly surpassed Twitter users in the United States.

 Daily Active Users: Pokémon GO vs. Twitter

PokemonBlog

 (Source: SimilarWeb)

In terms of average time users spend using the app, Pokémon GO has surpassed social media sites WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger. The average player uses the app for 43 minutes a day. What’s more, Niantic plans to launch the app in over 200 countries as soon as servers are bolstered. With the current bulk of Pokémon trainers in the United States, a global phenomenon could have a large carbon footprint.

Pikachu-Powered Data Centers?

There’s little information available on the data centers that Niantic is using for the app, but the company is presumably using Google cloud data centers or something similar. Niantic was a part of Google until April 2015, when the two split. Google has always been known for its environmental stewardship in big data. The company’s data centers are reported to use 50% less energy than most in the industry, and it uses renewable energy to power over 35% of its operations. So while no data is available on Niantic’s end, it can be assumed that the company is using industry best practices in its data centers.

Niantic has not released any sort of impact statement on the app’s actual energy use, though it is almost certainly astronomical. Niantic is already hard at work developing improvements to the game, such as limiting the amount of personal data the app could access. The energy use could be measured to assess the app for potential energy improvements. A new tool called EnergyBox, developed by Ekhiotz Jon Vergara from Swedish Linkoping University, measures the energy consumption of mobile devices due to data communication. This tool finds that the way apps are designed helps to curb the energy used to send and receive large amounts of data. Niantic should take note of its app’s energy consumption before rolling it out globally, lest we be trapped in a Diglett-infested desert due to GO-related global warming.

 

Smartphone-Based Car Connectivity Is Likely Only an Interim Solution

— March 17, 2016

CarsharingstandortI’ve been an advocate of smartphone projection infotainment solutions in cars ever since Ford introduced SYNC AppLink back in 2010. That appreciation has grown recently since the rollout of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Despite the vastly superior user experiences provided by Google and Apple compared to OEM designs, the coming of autonomous vehicle control systems means these almost certainly won’t be long-term solutions.

Since the debut of built-in GPS-navigation systems in the 1990s, they have been an expensive but useful option. Unfortunately, maps and especially the points-of-interest database can become rapidly outdated and typically only have one name for each entry in that database, so if a driver doesn’t get the spelling exactly right, they’ll be out of luck. The ability to draw information from the ever changing data stores of Google, Bing, and other search engines is a key advantage of smartphone navigation. Combined with cloud-based voice recognition that can provide more natural language search capabilities that recognize multiple name variations and you have a much more robust user experience.

Reliable Data

Such reliable and detailed navigational data will be a crucial component of making self-driving vehicles work reliably, especially if they are moving around without occupants as they park themselves or go to pick up passengers. Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report projects that there could be as many as 85 million vehicles capable of some degree of autonomy on the world’s roads in the next 2 decades.

True self-driving vehicles, especially those that are operated as part of mobility as a service fleets, will need connectivity and built-in maps that don’t rely on the presence of an occupant’s phone. OEMs are rapidly increasing the deployment of telematics systems into new vehicles. Every vehicle built by General Motors (GM) for sale in most major markets comes with OnStar built in, and Ford will be offering SYNC Connect on most of its fleet beginning this year. Within the next few years, these cars will be capable of searching both embedded and cloud-based navigational databases for near real-time information.

When Ford recently began testing its prototype autonomous Fusion in winter weather conditions, one key to the car’s ability to get around on snow-covered roads was the detailed 3D maps that were available onboard. The car was able to find its way around using LIDAR scanning the surroundings for landmarks, something that wouldn’t be possible using smartphone projection.

Powertrain electrification can also benefit greatly from built-in 3D maps. In 2014, the Mercedes-Benz S500 plug-in hybrid was one of the first vehicles to use knowledge of the road topography ahead to manage the balance between using battery and internal combustion power. The Kia Niro and Hyundai Ioniq hybrids going on sale this year are utilizing a similar strategy to achieve fuel efficiency improvements of approximately 1%.

Different Roles

Smartphone projection systems can certainly utilize topographical data to provide more economical routing decisions for drivers of the hundreds of millions of existing cars that will continue to operate for decades to come, and they will likely play a major role in reaching critical mass for vehicles capable of V2X communications. CarPlay and Android Auto will also continue to play a part in delivering news and entertainment to drivers, but even this will likely be supplanted by the telematics systems.

This doesn’t mean Apple and Google won’t have a part to play in future vehicles. In addition to the autonomous control systems that Google is offering to existing OEMs, the technology companies will probably be pushing for greater integration of their software directly into vehicle infotainment without the need for a connected phone.

 

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