The ERT Interview – Sir Hossein Yassaie
‘The Internet of Things is about solving the big issues in society’
Knighted for his services to industry and innovation, Sir Hossein Yassaie, the chief executive of leading British technology company Imagination, gives Sean Hannam his vision of the connected home and tomorrow’s world
Last year, more than 1.3 billion devices featuring technology developed by British company Imagination were shipped around the world, which, says CEO Sir Hossein Yassaie, is almost a quarter of the population of the planet.
“There’s a lot of UK tech that powers products, whether they’re phones, tablets or TVs. I think UK tech’s success has been one of the best-kept secrets. I will challenge you to buy a product that doesn’t have UK tech – whether it comes from us – Imagination – or our friends in Cambridge, ARM,” he tells ERT, sat in a meeting room at the manufacturer’s shiny new HQ – Imagination House – in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire.
“The UK is definitely very strong in technology, but I would like it to be stronger in brands and products,” he says.
“We’re very good at the start of the food chain, but we get weaker as we go along. I would love to see UK brands that grow and become a big deal – we have them in cars, but not in the consumer [electronics] space.”
Imagination Technologies has over 1,500 employees across more than a dozen countries. Founded in 1985 as VideoLogic, it originally focused on areas such as graphics, home audio systems, video capture and videoconferencing systems.It’s now known for innovations, including its PowerVR mobile graphics processors, semiconductors and software, and also its consumer electronics brand Pure, which launched the first £99 digital radio – the Pure Evoke-1 – in 2002.
Imagination’s technology can be found in the majority of digital radios and its Caskeid wireless audio platform is used in developing multi-room audio products. It works closely with brands such as Meridian Audio and Dolby and it licenses its technologies to companies including Sony, LG and Intel.
Sir Hossein was knighted in the 2013 New Year Honours List for services to technology and innovation – “it was a huge honour for me”. He joined Imagination Technologies in 1992 and the company has grown massively under his leadership, so much so, that it is now one of the leading players in the development of global electronics technology.
Q: Can you update us on some of the key areas of development that Imagination Technologies is currently working on?
Sir Hossein Yassaie: Clearly, the mobile phone and tablet markets have been a big part of our business and they continue to be, but those are stabilising – the rate of change is not as much as before, although under the hood there are still a lot of changes taking place.
What I find much more interesting is the home getting more connected – devices are changing and depending on connectivity and wi-fi. There’s also the Internet of Things and the consequences it will have on people’s lives. As a technologist, we are spending time on solving what I call the societal issues – healthcare, energy, security, safety and agriculture. That’s the next wave, but I’m not talking about next year – it’s the next five to 10 years.
Q: The Internet of Things (IoT) is a big talking point at the moment – it’s a buzzword. What does it mean to you?
HY: Some people use it too liberally – we don’t. At Imagination, we do not put existing categories into IoT. For example, a connected TV is a connected TV, or a mobile phone is a mobile phone…
For me, the IoT is about technology solving the big societal issues, like healthcare – devices that can monitor people. In many societies, the average age is going up – you’re getting ageing populations.
It’s about having healthcare technology that can make a difference – wearable tech and monitoring. We’re working with partners in hospitals – once you enter the hospital, you can have a patch attached to you and vital signs are monitored 24/7. It gives nurses the time to concentrate on other things.
I really believe that health tech will be a mega area of progress in the next few years. The other one is energy – you’re already seeing connected thermostats like Nest and others. You will see more and more.
There’s also security and safety – the idea of cameras that are a little bit more intelligent than they are today. We’re used to them in airports or in traffic lanes.
Q: Multi-room is one of the big battlegrounds in the connected home. Who do you think will succeed in that market?
The big change is that people have phones and tablets and their TV at home – there’s a small set of devices that they interact with. The fact that the internet is so fast these days – and that, within the home, you can have wi-fi networks that work really well, means it should be very straightforward for people to easily listen to or watch anything they want on any device. We’re still not quite there with that – we still have fragmented environments.
If you watch a movie on your TV and halfway through you have to get up and go somewhere, you should be able to continue watching it on your tablet somewhere else. It’s that kind of stuff that we’re spending a lot of time and effort in. It’s not about an individual ecosystem winning – it’s about servicing the needs of the consumer. You have to have a solution that works across all the different ecosystems – whether it’s Apple, or Google, or Spotify…
Q: So the connected home needs to be based on open standards?
HY: Yes – and I think you will see that. There are areas where you can have open standards and you will see them developing.
In those areas where you cannot have open standards, you’ll see multi-mode systems that will operate with all of the ecosystems.
When we started out in wireless connectivity, the original thing was how you would deliver highly synchronised audio to a few speakers – we believe we have the best technology in that space.
Now the other area that we’re working on – internally and with our partners – is that the solution needs to work across all platforms. You have to do what the consumer wants – billions of people around the world are interested in different things. You have to support all the tastes in music and phones.
In music, we’re very interested in high quality and what [UK hi-fi brand] Meridian is doing with its MQA [Master Quality Authenticated] technology – it’s very exciting. There is a lot to be said for delivering music in the way it was intended in the first place, rather than compromising. Not everyone may be interested in that, but I am convinced a large number of people will be.
The multi-room market hasn’t even started – we’re just at the beginning. Imagine how many people around the world have phones and tablets. You’re talking about billions of units – I’m sure a lot of those people and households would want to listen to music.
In five to 10 years’ time, I would be surprised if you walked into a home and it didn’t have wireless speakers with easy music distribution with your phone or tablet. Not only for music, but video as well.
If you look at the wireless multi-room speaker market – not Bluetooth – it’s only a few million units, but the potential is one hundred to three hundred million in the next few years. Part of our goal is to enable the market to deliver the technologies that are needed.
Q: Has it been a challenge to change the perception of Pure as a ‘traditional’ digital radio brand into one that’s more of a multi-room audio one?
HY: Whenever a brand tries to do something that’s outside of its original area, it’s always difficult. A key part of Pure’s role is to take new technologies that will change the future out to the marketplace. When we launched the first £99 digital radio, I had no idea whether the coverage would be enough to deal with it…
Digital radio is now somewhere in the region of six to eight million units a year and growing. Once Europe comes on board, it will be 30 to 50 million units in the next few years – Imagination’s technology is in 80 per cent plus of the radios that are shipping. Pure is playing its role in moving things forward and it’s done a good job so far.
Q: What new technologies are exciting you?
HY: I’m really excited about the rise of VR – Virtual Reality. It’s not just a system for silly games – the benefits of VR headsets will have massive applications. Of course, they will be used for games and tourism, but my daughter is a doctor and I was talking to her about being able to teach up-and-coming doctors about the human body by using [VR] headsets. You could do virtual autopsies
I’m also interested in Augmented Reality (AR) – I see a huge potential for it. You can combine the environment you’re in with virtual stuff and make it look very real. We have a technology that we’re developing called ray tracing – it brings the concept of light into virtual reality and then you can model the real world very accurately. We’re on the verge of the next stage in graphics and VR and AR are the two exciting areas.
The UK is definitely very strong in technology, but I would like it to be stronger in brands and products. We’re very good at the start of the food chain, but we get weaker as we go along. I’d love to see UK brands that grow and become a big deal
The other thing I’m really excited about is the use of vision technology in healthcare – tiny, low-power devices to monitor health. I saw an application for a camera that can look at you and measure your heartbeat very accurately.
As we move into new categories of devices, the way they interact with human beings is not going to be through keyboards or touch-screens – those were evolutions that were relevant to PCs and phones. These new devices will use voice and vision as the main communications mechanisms. There’s far-field voice technology being developed, where you can talk to a device from anywhere in a room and it will recognise it and do things – you don’t need to hold it next to your mouth.
Q: What would be your dream tech?
HY: I feel passionate about doing stuff in healthcare that will make a big difference but, putting that aside, we are at a place where computing capability is so advanced that you can do useful artificial intelligence that can really make a difference to people’s lives, rather than just a computer that can just recognise a number. Combine that with vision and intelligent cameras and I think we’re at the stage that in the next 10 years, we’ll see a lot of the things that were promised to have been here by the year 2000 – like the clever robot. I’m not interested in gimmicky products – a little robot that just walks around and shakes his head. We’ll see very advanced computers that will make a difference to people’s lives.