Hearable Nearables

Imagine you could “hear” Bluetooth devices moving through a building. In anticipation of last weekend’s #HackTheHouse hackathon for smart buildings, hosted at Notman House where we’ve had our technology deployed since 2012, we created the Notman Tonal Presence web application to do just that.

On each of Notman’s three floors, there are three of our Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) sensors (which we call reelceivers), plus an addition sensor in the adjacent OSMO Cafe.

Think of each floor as a musical note in a scale (C – E – G – C), and each wing of that floor as a pan in stereo (Left – Centre – Right).

When BLE devices “appear” and “disappear” they produce a note which encodes the location by the tonality and pan. Same thing when BLE devices “displace” from one zone to another, only these use a ping-pong delay rather than a pan.

For the hackathon, we ordered three packs of Estimote Nearables which are BLE devices that periodically transmit their temperature and 3-axis acceleration. Unfortunately, these were held up in customs and didn’t make it in time. But the web app essentially turns these into “hearable nearables” and, as you’ll pick out in the video, we could tell not only when they had arrived, but also where in the house they were:

Yes, they’re on the second floor east (right) wing. Why so noisy? As we discussed in our ObservaBLE Etiquette blog post, the Estimote Nearables cycle their identifier with every transmission. To an observer, that would be interpreted as a new device “appearing” each time. Hence plenty of appearance and disappearance notes in the web application.

To reinforce this point, have a look at the Google Analytics (GA) timeline for Notman House. Our platform pushes all the events from the house to GA (see our Google Analytics for the Physical World blog post), where each is interpreted as a session based on its identifier. The Nearables’ aggressive identifier-cycling results significantly biases the number of sessions, and hence we can tell from the edge of the high plateau when they arrived: shortly after 16h on November 15th.

We created the Notman Tonal Presence application as an example of calm technology for smart buildings. The ambient sounds allow the listener to subconsciously register foot traffic within the building while leaving their attention free for other tasks. Even the casual listener would have been gently alerted to the arrival of the Nearables, which is precisely the objective of calm technology. And, now, duly alerted, we can direct our attention towards filtering out the Nearables from GA so that their incessant identifier-cycling doesn’t saturate the session counts!

ObservaBLE etiquette

Rules are explicit principles governing conduct. Etiquette is an expected code of conduct within social norms. When we developed and released our first Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) device in 2013, there were rules, but there was no etiquette.

To understand why, recall that BLE was born as Wibree, introduced by Nokia in 2006, and only merged into the Bluetooth standard in 2010. That merger paved the way for the first global standard for Active RFID, as BLE allows devices to spontaneously “advertise” themselves to any and all observers (readers) in range. While the BLE rules may be a decade old, commercial deployments are far too recent to expect established etiquette, even today.

Before BLE, there were only proprietary Active RFID systems, of which the reelyActive cofounders themselves have developed two. Proprietary systems afford the designers control over both the rules and etiquette conducive to the intended application of the technology. BLE, on the other hand, established the rules for a global standard, encouraging widespread adoption, while leaving the etiquette necessarily free to (hopefully) emerge from the real-world interactions of the billion-plus devices now shipping annually from countless vendors.

Over the past three years, while we have indeed observed an emergence of etiquette, it tends to remain fragmented and lack cohesion. Moreover, we continue to be surprised by the incidence of minor rule violations. Our intent here is to formally acknowledge these shortcomings, suggest improvements and encourage all concerned parties to collaborate to ensure that the enormous potential of BLE’s unique “advertising” capability can be fully realised.

Manufacturer Specific Data: breaking the rules

A powerful feature of BLE is the ability to “advertise” a few bytes of whatever you want, whenever you want, as Manufacturer Specific Data. Simply include your 16-bit company code (list here) and send whatever data you like (sensor readings, identifiers, missile launch codes, …). Curiously, that simple rule gets broken, likely inadvertently, far more often than one might expect.

That can’t be what your Samsung wearable is advertising, the company code is invalid! Oh wait, it’s just backwards…

Yes, even Samsung can get the endianness wrong, sending 0x7800 instead of 0x0078.

TrackR as Ericsson

Will you register with the SIG and use a companyIdentifierCode other than Ericsson’s 0x0000 in future?

That’s a line from our e-mail to Chris from TrackR after we observed that their devices were using company code ‘0’ which is assigned to Ericsson Technology Licensing. As of writing, TrackR still don’t appear to have claimed their own company code.

The most common error we’ve seen is for devices to ignore the 16-bits reserved for the company code and employ the entire space for their own data. While this and the errors presented above aren’t showstoppers per se, they nonetheless hamper device discovery due to mistaken or unknown identity. What’s going on?

It’s easy to follow the rules when they’re well documented. In the case of BLE, we feel there’s much room for improvement. In fact, we took it upon ourselves to create a software library called advlib, with explicit documentation and an online tool for interpreting advertising packets, and even presented our work as a scientific article. While we trust that these will be helpful to the community, our expectation, however, would be for the Bluetooth SIG to ensure an ample supply of developer-friendly documentation and accessible tools.

“Return of the MAC”: emerging etiquette

Another powerful feature of BLE is the option to “advertise” a random, rather than static, 48-bit identifier. A device therefore has the option to identify itself three ways, using a:

  • static, IEEE-assigned identifier
  • static, randomly-generated identifier
  • periodically-changing, randomly-generated identifier

If we imagine the use case of a retail store “observing” the occupants via their “advertising” BLE devices, these three options offer the following possibilities, respectively:

  • device can be recognised on subsequent visits, chipset manufacturer can be looked up
  • device can be recognised on subsequent visits
  • device cannot be recognised on subsequent visits

Indeed, the retail use case is the one for which we receive the most inquiries. Given privacy concerns, one might expect an emergent etiquette around how the devices we’re likely to carry or wear into a store identify themselves. Consistent behaviour across devices would expedite adoption in retail, however, our answer to such inquiries about identification continues to be “it’s complicated”, and here’s why.

Apple’s iOS devices, which were among the first to embrace BLE technology, can be commended for electing to change their identifier every 15 minutes or so. This ensures privacy by preventing someone from being recognised as a repeat visitor to a store, yet allows their in-store journey to be anonymously tracked for the duration of that period. For us, that strikes a healthy balance of benefits for both the client and the retailer.

Android devices originally embraced BLE technology haphazardly, tending at first to static identifiers. However, from Android 5 onwards, like in iOS, periodically-changing identifiers are employed. At the Place Conference, we asked Chandu Thota, Director of Engineering at Google, what one thing he’d like to see improve faster. His answer was the convergence of behaviour among the diverse BLE hardware and firmware in the mobile devices running Android. Indeed, without that challenge first resolved for Android, it’s unreasonable to expect any refinement of etiquette!

And then there’s Fitbit.

I bought my Fitbit Charge HR in March 2015, and 18 months later, it’s still advertising the same identifier every second-and-a-half or so.

Clearly a different approach to identification and privacy than the mobile platforms… We tweeted Fitbit about this, but the behaviour remains the same with subsequent firmware updates. Care to know where the Fitbit-wearing author of this article is right now? Simply ask our open API whereis d9:01:4f:6b:a8:b2 or what is the contextnear d9:01:4f:6b:a8:b2? We’ve seen the same from other wearables vendors such as Xiaomi, but given Fitbit’s technical know-how and dominant market share, highlighted by the number of their devices our platform detects, it’s curious that they haven’t yet moved to protect privacy by occasionally cycling their identifiers!

FYX and Nearables cycling identifiers

Finally, on the other extreme, there are devices which go so far as to change their identifier on each subsequent transmission. We’ve observed both Qualcomm’s FYX beacon and Estimote’s Nearables exhibiting this behaviour. Curiously, the latter includes a static 64-bit identifier as Manufacturer Specific Data, thereby completely voiding any potential motivation for privacy or security! The result of this behaviour is that an “observer” sees the individual device as multiple devices, appearing and disappearing in sequence. Depending on how the vendor’s BLE stack handles this case, this would likely lead to inefficient use of memory and computing resources, possibly overwhelming or even crashing the stack! Perhaps not the best etiquette!

From the examples given, it is clear that there is an emergence of identification etiquette, at least for individual vendors across their various devices. However, the fragmented approaches across vendors result in a lack of cohesion, which remains to be overcome to establish an expected code of conduct within social norms.

Realising the enormous potential of BLE’s “advertising” capability

We cannot understate our belief in the enormous potential of BLE’s “advertising” capability, just as we argued at Bluetooth World in 2014. Should it not have been obvious before, yes our platform is “observing” everyone’s devices, yes we’re checking the rules (our platform cares), and yes we’re keen to benefit from the emergence of coherent etiquette across devices and vendors. Etiquette being an expected code of conduct within social norms, social interaction among us vendors and developers is paramount! Therefore, as a community of members of the Bluetooth SIG, perhaps if we improve our efforts to look out for one another (quite literally) and openly share our thoughts and concerns, as we’ve done here, we’ll expedite the emergence of a collective etiquette which is key to the widespread adoption of the first global standard for Active RFID!

The IoT as your Brand Ambassador

Since the coining of the term Internet of Things in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, the IoT has been described in myriad ways. Just as was the case twenty years ago with the Internet, we have a habit of predicting the future of a technology by standing in the present looking forward. But what if we change that perspective and imagine ourselves in the future looking back at today? We did exactly that, as the following video shows.

For how many years have you been building your digital brand on the Internet? Take a moment to imagine your digital self.

In cyberspace, you’re known as your digital self, your digital brand. In “meatspace”, you’re known as your physical self, a brand that millions of years of evolution as social animals has hard-wired us humans to both advertise and recognise. We’ve adapted to live in both of these worlds. And, in our futuristic hindsight, the Internet of Things is arguably the Internet’s adaptation to join us in the “meatspace” world.

Last month we showed how The Physical Web just got Personal, how you can today advertise your digital self on the same scale as your physical self, whenever and wherever you choose. You already have in your hand (or on your wrist) the technology to advertise your digital brand. So when and how will the IoT emerge as your brand ambassador, calmly delivering the right information at the right place at the right time?

Fortunately, we’re not alone in asking that question. In The Bank of Personal Data we discussed how Dr. Roberto Minerva, like us, argues for a broker model. And when you consider how much of your digital brand is locked up in the siloed “vaults” of social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, e-commerce platforms from Amazon to niche brands, VC-backed grow-your-user-base-then-monetise apps, digital health platforms such as Fitbit and, of course, the almighty Google, expect an epic battle between these and emerging players to establish the dominant currency and exchange for this information, your information, in the real world in real time.

We conclude our video arguing that the (post-battle) IoT will make you a superhuman in the real world. It’s not the first time we’ve used that word, case in point our 2013 post IxD, the Superhuman and the Superorganism. Only recently, however, has the “how” come into focus, and we now see “what”, from a human perspective, the IoT may very well prove to be: a personal brand ambassador for each and every one of us.

Proximity in its Place

The 2016 Place Conference brought together the brands, retailers, agencies and technology companies pushing the envelope of cross-platform proximity marketing, indoor experiences and location analytics. We feel that organiser Greg Sterling of The LSA, in his introduction, most eloquently summarised in two slides why local matters:

Digital vs. Local

While we spend an increasing amount of time online, we still spend the majority of our money locally, close to work and home. The following is a brief summary of our takeaways from the conference.

Still educating, still adopting

“How many people here have had a real-world beacon experience?”

In a room of a hundred, a mere handful of hands were raised. This hammered home the point that although proximity experiences currently receive all the attention, the reality is that three years after the launch of the iBeacon with iOS 7, and with over 8 million proximity sensors deployed globally today according to Proxbook, the concept is still in its infancy. Instead, it was the presentations on location analytics, a less-glamorous subject, which boasted tangible, measurable results.

Erin Kienast of OMD, who successfully ran such a campaign with McDonald’s, said she spends a lot of time educating local media agencies about the power of location, and how they can use the data. Our experience has been the same. Indeed, while the national agencies may have the edge in education, the local agencies still outweigh them in terms of volume. Education precedes adoption, and a few turnkey solutions certainly wouldn’t hurt either.

We’re not making it easy

“We’re making it really hard for the CMO today” said Pehr Luedtke of Vanassis. “How do the CMOs understand the crazy landscape of location tech?”

Greg Sterling affirmed, “technology companies add complexity beyond what a human operator can be expected to handle.” We know. As a technology company, we’re as guilty of that as any of our peers that were in the room, but we’re working hard to improve. Our approach has been to approach retailers within a partner ecosystem where we master the location technology and our partners individually master the experience, marketing communications, change management, analytics and such. Technology companies should leave end-user-interaction to the experts.

New channel, new offer

“You can’t push the same offer through a digital channel” said Jay Hawkinson of SIM Partners. “You need to make a compelling location-based offer.”

Indeed it doesn’t make sense to make all the effort to meet the customer where they are, only then to serve them up a generic offer. But it certainly does take additional consideration to create the most relevant offer, and marketers need to be prepared. In our retail deployment experience, the impact of even a modestly tailored offer versus a generic offer was orders of magnitude greater. But our partners still had to push to make it happen!

Location accuracy: who cares?

Google doesn’t. Aisle411 does.

Place 2016: Location Accuracy

One can argue that they’re both right. In the case of absolute location, the traditional latitude-longitude measurement, accuracy dictates granularity. And for Aisle411, 30cm is the right granularity. However, in the case of semantic location, championed by both Google and ourselves, all that really matters is what’s nearby to the user. In other words it’s simply relative.

A light bulb just went off

“How many advertisers does it take to change a [connected] LED light bulb?” joked Google’s Frank van Diggelen.

Place 2016: Connected Lighting

Both Philips and Acuity shed light (pun intended) on the fact that one thing is for sure indoors: we’re always near a light. Internet-connected LED lighting overcomes the three challenges faced by location technology:

  1. persistent power
  2. consistent connectivity
  3. necessity of infrastructure

The combination of smartphones and connected lighting promises accurate location via beacons, WiFi, computer vision, magnetics, inertial and visible light communication (VLC). Curiously excluded from the list, however, was Bluetooth as a real-time location system (RTLS), essentially beacons in reverse.

Are people beacons too?

If smartphones act as beacons (as many wearables already do), then connected lighting could identify and locate the people carrying them. We first demonstrated the concept three years ago, using our own connected sensor infrastructure. Last week, to celebrate that anniversary, we proclaimed that The Physical Web just got Personal.

“Can people be considered places? In other words, can a person’s smartphone act as a beacon?” we asked Chandu Thota, Director of Engineering at Google. The answer, as we expected, was no, that’s not how Google sees it. Thota confirmed that we were not alone in advancing applications where the smartphone “advertises” itself to its surroundings. But the company behind Android, Eddystone and The Physical Web (at least) currently sees the smartphone exclusively as a receiver of what is nearby to its user.

Is the industry abusively smartphone-centric?

The smartphone is an incredible innovation which has revolutionised how brands can interact with their customers. Nonetheless, it is easy to argue, as one attendee did, that imagining those customers walking through stores with their eyes glued to their smartphones is downright dangerous! Case in point, this video.

Place 2016: Smartphone-Centricity

What we’ve heard from brick-and-mortar retailers is that they want to emphasise the human experience of shopping, aided by the tools pioneered by online retailers. For us, the smartphone-centric approach is at odds with that vision, instead emphasising the digital experience within a physical context.

Our hope for the next Place Conference is to see case studies of CMO-friendly end-to-end solutions which deliver delightful experiences with tangible results all the while keeping the smartphone in the users pocket to the extent possible. See you there!

Three years Beyond the Beacon: the Physical Web just got Personal

Three years ago today on this blog, we published Beyond the Beacon: BLE just got Reel. In honour of that anniversary, today we publish Three years Beyond the Beacon: the Physical Web just got Personal.

The original Beyond the Beacon post was prepared with a sense of urgency to coincide with Apple’s iOS7 release featuring iBeacon support. We were anxious to show our vision for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology, which the iOS 7 release enabled for the first time. Despite being hastily recorded, the video accompanying the blog post quickly gathered over 10,000 views, in large part due to the provocative Loophole in iBeacon could let iPhones guard your likes instead of bombard you with coupons article in which it is featured. In that GigaOM article, Stacey Higginbotham writes:

[reelyActive] is perhaps a bit too far ahead of its time right now, in that it’s thinking beyond beacons to a fully connected world where a person’s preferences are communicated by their device and stored in the cloud.

Indeed we were too far ahead of our time back then. Fast-forward to today however, where we proudly share how we’ve assembled established technologies in a novel way to enable exactly the above. And, curiously, this time around it is instead Google whose products and projects have made this possible.

The Physical Web just got Personal

The animation above illustrates how the vision of communicating a person’s preferences via their device involves effectively two steps:

  1. the mobile device wirelessly advertises the source of a person’s data to any and all devices in range
  2. those devices query that source and receive structured data which represents the person in a standard way

In the retail example, this means that the data which a client chooses to share could be immediately discovered by a nearby employee with a smartphone, by digital signage, or by sensor infrastructure throughout the store itself. The onus is then on the latter to deliver a personalised experience to the client who would expect nothing less in return!

This is both technically and functionally viable today on recent Android devices where an app advertises, in a Google Eddystone packet sent over BLE, a URL pointing to the person’s hosted data (Step 1), and, any receiving device queries that URL in exchange for structured data in the standardised form of Schema.org and JSON-LD (Step 2). The recipient can easily make sense of the person’s data which is structured precisely as per Google and other search engines suggestion such that they may “organise and display it in creative ways”.

At the time of writing, iOS devices restrict what may be transmitted over BLE, preventing the use of Eddystone, a product of Google’s Physical Web project. However, if you have a recent Android device and a BLE-enabled computing device such as a Raspberry Pi 3, using reelyApp and our open source software suite, you can do exactly what we show in this video.

For those who like to look under the hood, the personal data is stored in a hosted json-silo, accessed using cormorant and rendered using cuttlefish. The Pi is set up from scratch following this tutorial.

Three years ago, Apple opened the door to smartphones advertising themselves to their surroundings. Over the past two years Google advanced projects to both identify and represent physical “things” in a standard way. While both companies continue to champion the smartphone-as-receiver model, we’re more excited than ever about the smartphone-as-transmitter model which literally flips advertising on its head, fostering a user-centric, opt-in model of real-time information sharing on a human scale. Thanks to emerging standards and just enough wiggle room for permissionless innovation, today we proudly proclaim that the Physical Web just got Personal.

Society can HOPE for a better Link

Last weekend, at the Eleventh HOPE, we took a front row seat for the talk entitled LinkNYC: Free Public Wi-Fi That Isn’t Free or Public knowing it would critically challenge the recent local deployment of connectivity infrastructure, not unlike that which is core to our vision.

LinkNYC is an infrastructure project currently being rolled out across New York City’s five boroughs, promising “Free super fast Wi-Fi. And that’s just the beginning”. This is achieved via up to 10,000 links, progressively replacing pay phones. Each link includes two large screens for advertising and PSAs, a tablet for interaction, 3 cameras and 30 sensors, and, of course, Wi-Fi, with plenty of bandwidth thanks to a dedicated fiber connection.

Free, widespread Internet connectivity for the masses, how brilliant! As we’ve previously argued, connectivity is the critical underlying fabric of not only the Internet, but life itself. Imagine what the promise of ubiquitous connectivity holds! That is, until you inspect the underlying fabric of LinkNYC as the Hackers On Planet Earth (HOPE) are so adept at doing.

Benjamin Dean, President of Iconoclast Tech and Fellow for Cyber Security and Internet Governance at Columbia SIPA, did exactly that in his presentation, raising what for us are two critical concerns regarding the future of ubiquitous connectivity infrastructure.

1. The digital business model is transposed to the physical

Dean illustrated that when you add up the published revenues and expenses, the corporate partners appear to lose $50M over the course of the project. This, of course, raises suspicions of an alternative revenue stream, which was clearly alluded to in the following quote from Don Doctoroff, head of Google/Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, one of the partners in the project.

“By having access to the browsing activity of people using the Wi-Fi — all anonymized and aggregated — we can actually then target ads to people in proximity and then obviously over time track them through lots of different things, like beacons and location services, as well as their browsing activity. So in effect what we’re doing is replicating the digital experience in physical space.” (Original source)

While there are definitely aspects of our collective digital experience we feel would be beneficially transposed to the physical world in the age of the Internet of Things, the advertising-driven business model certainly doesn’t top our list. Especially given Dean’s calculation that the project could be entirely publicly funded at a cost of fractions of a penny per citizen per day. Is that too much to ask? And would the economic benefits generated by ubiquitous connectivity alone not indirectly subsidise taxpayer investment in the project many times over?

2. Vague policies promote privatisation, not privacy

Given his background, Dean had no difficulties raising serious concerns with the privacy policies of the project. To paraphrase these policies (with no attempt to emulate his articulate analysis thereof):

  • we won’t do creepy stuff like facial recognition
  • we can share the data we collect with third parties
  • we won’t explicitly state anything that prevents them from doing creepy stuff

In other words, nothing appears to prevent your private information from ending up in the hands of private organisations. Perhaps not the organisations involved in the project, but at least those within their arms reach.

Contrast this to our privacy policy which we’ve done our utmost to keep short, clear and readable, and which concludes with the sentence:

Wish we had more to tell you but honestly, we really want to have as little as possible to do with your personal information aside from enabling you to share it when you want, where you want and with whom you want!

While we’re quite proud to champion the notion of users retaining the control of their data and with whom it is shared, the LinkNYC debate nonetheless reminds us of its fragility, given that nothing prevents subsequent layers of third party platforms from exercising policies analogous to the aforementioned. Perhaps a GPL-style privacy policy that influences/contaminates (depending on which side of the debate you’re on!) subsequent policies is the answer? Although for those who attended Richard Stallman’s talk at the same conference, it’s clear that such policies are controversial even within a sympathetic community!

And as for applying the digital advertising-driven business model to the physical world, we have a simple counter argument in economic terms: it’s an outdated, inefficient model. We’re in the early throes of an industrial revolution which will create overwhelming volumes of real-time contextual data, with, arguably, much more of it consensually shared, promising massive economic gains through efficiencies. However, in any revolution, the outgoing paradigm will coexist alongside the new for some time. While LinkNYC seems poised to continue to bet on the former, we’re confident that a growing number of startups, ourselves included, are betting wisely on the latter.

In conclusion, while there are clearly valid concerns around the LinkNYC project, overall the benefits of ubiquitous connectivity, free and public or not, are arguably positive. The history of the Internet suggests that the public will nonetheless overwhelmingly accept any such tradeoffs. A revolutionary change in the underlying business model is unlikely to come from public dissent, but rather from the sustainable competitive advantage of a new economic paradigm. Ultimately, we’d argue that the companies first to exploit that novel competitive advantage will enjoy the economic benefits, and bear the ethical responsibilities, of leading the way forward.

Investing in a Value-First Sharing Economy

Last month we had the pleasure of reading The Sharing Economy and subsequently meeting the author, Arun Sundararajan, with whom we shared our praise, at the New Cities Summit. The book, which we’ve added to our bibliography, eloquently ties together many of our pioneering thoughts on innovation and economics, which we’ll discuss here, starting with the economics which Sundararajan frames as follows:

The sharing economy, although not politically neutral, is creating a new economic model – an interesting middle ground between capitalism and socialism – that also appears to lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people who identify with the extreme ends of both the economic and political spectrums. More importantly, it has developed an economic model that appears to lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people who identify with neither of those extremes.

Conceptually, it seem paradoxical that a new economic model can benefit both those closest to and furthest from the extremes of traditional models. But, as we highlight in our blog post on the Pervasive Sharing Economy, scepticism wanes as even companies that have been notoriously slow to adapt are defying expectations:

General Motors, a company that long ago conspired to derail public transit to boost private vehicle ownership, just bet $500M on Lyft anticipating the end of said ownership!

In that post we argue that while the current sharing economy is largely limited to higher-value underutilised assets such as vehicles and real-estate, the proliferation of Internet of Things technologies will extend the marketplace to include the majority of everyday things from clothing to tools and beyond. However, unlocking this enormous potential is predicated on a significant investment in technology and infrastructure, a proposition which is today typically met with resistance. But such attitudes are clearly evolving, as evidenced by the book’s citation of a post by Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures discussing their investment in OB1 which develops the enabling technologies for OpenBazaar, “a free market for all with no fees or restrictions”:

How can a business that is consciously architected to undo network effect defensibility, one that is tearing down the walls and filling in the moats that every paper on market based competition has insisted are necessary for success … succeed?
OB1 will offer a set of value added services to buyers and sellers […] and they don’t expect to have any proprietary advantage over those competitors. As investors, we hope that their familiarity with the marketplace and the goodwill they generate as early sponsors of the open source project will give them an advantage but we understand they must execute very well or be left behind. (link)

While it is both refreshing and motivating, as startup entrepreneurs, to witness this shift in attitudes towards investment, we must point out that it is not access to capital alone which is gating progress. Policies and protocols play an equally important role as Sundararajan’s quote of Albert Wenger, also of Union Square Ventures, this time discussing Bitcoin, highlights:

Policy makers, however, need to understand the importance of protocols for enabling distributed permission-less innovation – that is innovation by many individuals and startups. For instance, the hypertext transport protocol (http) is what lets a browser talk to a web server – as long as the server implements the protocol it can deliver innovative content or services to any browser. HTTP itself builds on many other lower level protocols, such as DNA and TCP/IP. Historically, protocols have emerged from either research projects or from individuals / small groups simply throwing something out that sticks. (link)

Case in point, Vint Cerf, co-inventor of TCP/IP, and currently VP & Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, who we recently had the pleasure of meeting at an IEEE science conference. As we argue in Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT: “in our opinion, he is one of the few individuals applying a long-term vision to balance what’s optimal and what’s profitable for the still nascent Internet of Things”. Cerf equally argues for permissionless innovation. Without the Internet-enabling TCP/IP protocol he co-invented as a researcher, Google’s highly profitable business could not exist! At reelyActive, we thus stand by our approach of publishing protocols as science, upon which we build our innovative business, driven to execute very well or be left behind!

In the coming weeks reelyActive will celebrate its fourth anniversary. One might say that we’ll celebrate having survived four years (see threelyActive), as indeed our hybrid approach hasn’t made life easy under the existing paradigm. Nonetheless, the recent developments discussed in this post and in the book are enormously encouraging. So, what is the next economic paradigm? On that topic, Sundararajan argues the following, paraphrasing Douglass North:

[H]istory suggests that it is neither possible nor economically viable to simply adopt existing rules and apply them to a new economy. The challenge, then, is to determine what comes next.

What comes next is a value-first approach. Investment in the projects and startups developing enabling technologies, including the underlying open protocols, will unlock massive value, generated through permissionless innovation by their peers; value that will lend itself to fulfilling the desires and needs of people across the political-economic spectrum. Investment in massive value creation is Phase 1. Embracing this approach, investors, be they private, institutional or government, need only find a clever means to collect their fair share of the resultant massive value in order to profit more handsomely than could ever be afforded by the current economic paradigm.

LPLAN as amenaBLE to M2M as LPWAN

This week we attended the Wavefront IoT Roadshow where much of this year’s hype was around LPWAN technologies which allow simple, inexpensive radio devices to communicate short messages with cellular base stations kilometers away. An excellent example of the potential of this technology is the SMOCKEO smoke detector which automatically and securely communicates status and alerts to the Internet via the SigFox LPWA network — without any network configuration required. Curious about their optimism surrounding ubiquitous LPWAN adoption, we asked the final panel of experts when they’d expect such devices to be able to connect seamlessly anywhere in the world, if ever? Crickets…

Indeed, there are several competing standards for LPWAN including SigFox, LoRa and LTE-M, and the panel shared little optimism that any single one would cover all geographies. So for all the hype around long-range IoT, it is, at least currently, still very much relegated to niche applications of early adopters in select regions. And this makes us scratch our head as to why the complementary concept of Low Power Local Area Networks (LPLAN) doesn’t even come up in a Google search! Allow us to explain.

LoRa and SigFox versus Bluetooth Low Energy

Today there are billions of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices across the planet:

  • like in LPWAN, these can spontaneously transmit short messages to any receivers that might be in range
  • they use the 2.4GHz unlicensed global ISM band
  • sure, they’re limited to a range on the order of tens of meters, but
  • there are billions of nearby Internet-connected candidate BLE “base stations”, any recent mobile phone, laptop or set-top box is an example

In other words, there are, today, several orders of magnitude more devices technically capable of living up to the LPWAN hype, only with significantly reduced range.

Not convinced on the potential of BLE LPLAN? Consider Tile and TrackR which for at least two years now have in effect operated such (albeit siloed) networks which connect any of their devices to the Internet via their mobile app. In other words, an unpaired Tile will periodically send packets that any BLE device in range can receive and decode. It does so in the hope that the Tile app of any user will be in range, and if so, that packet will be forwarded to Tile’s cloud service.

In fact, reelyActive BLE infrastructure routinely picks up Tile transmissions and forwards them to the Internet. Chances are you’ll see a Tile here among plenty of other similar devices. Your SmartTV and mobile phone could act as BLE gateways just the same. Alas, the aforementioned tracking services are typically branded with limited scope as “crowd GPS”, when in fact, they could spearhead a much broader “crowd LPLAN” or “distributed M2M” (Machine-to-Machine communication) initiative.

Three years ago we published a scientific article entitled Towards a simple, versatile, distributed low-power wireless M2M infrastructure which unveiled our vision of this concept. We’ve tweeted Tile about this. Ditto for FitBit and Flic. We shared our vision with the Bluetooth SIG’s committee on IoT. We created an open library for low-power wireless advertising packets and then published our work in another scientific article entitled Low-Power Wireless Advertising Software Library for Distributed M2M and Contextual IoT. One would be hard pressed to argue that we’ve kept this to ourselves!

The question then again is why with all the LPWAN and IoT hype, if a complementary and underexploited option based on BLE exists, should the latter be subject to such deference? We press on regardless, and look forward to forwarding the packets of the first BLE device provider to request them from us!

RFID Journal Live 2016

Our team have just returned from RFID Journal Live, the largest RFID conference in the world. We had previously attended in 2013, an experience we discussed in this blog post where we concluded that:

we continue to pursue our vision of simple, accessible active RFID, and we strongly encourage other vendors to follow suit in the spirit of collaboration.

The spirit of collaboration

We were pleasantly surprised to discover the extent to which many vendors are embracing collaboration with their current products and business models. For instance, Ubisense unveiled their AngleID sensor which precisely locates their ultra-wideband (UWB) tags, and can be purchased outright without licensing fees and integrated with another vendor’s application software. Similarly, Quuppa presented us their sensor which, like ours, is compatible with Bluetooth Low Energy devices and provides an API for integration with third-party application software. ELA has a similar model for 433MHz Active RFID. Why does this matter? Imagine one of our prospective clients has a need for our technology, but also requires high-precision RTLS in a few places: we could integrate their complementary hardware with our own middleware to provide a complete solution. Everybody wins.

Where’s the WiFi?

Notably absent on the exhibition floor this year were vendors of WiFi RTLS. In 2013, we argued that they favoured competition over collaboration and it was disappointing, but unsurprising, not to find this year a vendor with a solution and business model similar to those presented above.

Simple and accessible anyone?

In 2012, RFID Journal Editor Mark Roberti wrote about Making RFID Easier, suggesting he didn’t know of a simple, cost-effective solution for tracking a few pieces of art in a gallery. In March of this year, a similar post again pleaded “Offer a simple, cost-efficient solution that delivers value, and you’ll have a customer for life.” For this reason, we timed the launch of our Pareto platform, which is precisely that, to coincide with the conference. From our experience on the exhibition floor, we’d argue that we are indeed unique in successfully responding to this plea.

It doesn’t get better than this!

Perhaps our favourite talk of the conference was Kevin Berisso of the University of Memphis’ Auto-ID lab‘s Bluetooth Low Energy: Simple Low-Cost RTLS Replacement or Complex Problem? Essentially, Dr. Berisso sought to create a simple, cost-effective RTLS using commodity Bluetooth Low Energy devices. Slide after slide illustrated the dead ends his team faced. It could have been an advertisement for our solution, and, as such, it completely validated everything we had developed since our previous visit to the conference three years ago. In fact, solving Dr. Berisso’s pain with our platform will be straightforward. Our challenge, rather, is ensuring that many more people like him can quickly and easily find our solution.

BLE RTLS is a complex problem

Accessible RFID is not only about cost-effectiveness, but critically about actually finding its way into the hands of those who need it most, whether they know they need it or not! With healthy collaboration now established, let that be the challenge for RFID Journal Live 2017!

A Fool to Open Source

This week, while paying a visit to one of our Fortune 500 clients, they asked us why we open sourced our software. “Anyone could just copy your work” they said. “Aren’t you afraid that someone steals your business from you?” Wow. We hadn’t thought of that. We just figured we were following the Lean Startup guidelines by sticking to the free tier of GitHub. It costs $25 per month to hide your code in private repositories you know! But then we looked into the gravity of our mistake and here’s what we found:

Other companies can create value on top of our platform. For themselves! How selfish!

We were feeling quite confident that we had the $19 trillion Internet of Things market opportunity all to ourselves given our early mover status. After all, we announced our IoT pivot a week before Cisco, the company responsible for that claim. But it turns out that other companies could leverage our open source platform to “create” additional value. For instance, a third party could focus on a specific vertical outside of our expertise, and develop a useful targeted product with our code base as a foundation. That supposed additional value would in effect be a stolen slice of our $19T pie! Unless, of course, they’re naïve enough to open source too, allowing us to reciprocate and rightfully reclaim our slice!

Collaborators could contaminate our code base under the auspices of free contributions!

We also felt confident that, in our conquest of the global IoT market, we could maintain a clean, pure code base dignified of such an endeavour. But then, to our chagrin, individuals outside our organisation insisted on collaborating and contributing to our open source code. Sure, they claimed to be “fixing bugs” or “adding features” but we all know that can’t be true: why would anyone work without pay? Their intentions could only be malicious. Surely they must be saboteurs seeking to steal from our pie! After all, look at what open collaboration has done to the Linux operating system. Yikes! Is anybody still using that?

The community could continue to use our software even should our organisation perish!

Okay, we’re still having a hard time wrapping our heads around this one. It’s bad enough that we have to share our pie with selfish third-parties and “collabo-raiders”. Now imagine that they eat the whole $19T, causing us to starve and perish as an organisation! Apparently our open source code base would continue to live on indefinitely! How unjust! This surely explains why so many clients and partners have been keen to adopt our platform: we’d have absolutely no recourse to childishly revoke our work out of spite! In fact, we are relegated to subsist but from the meager rations of pie that they dole out each month in exchange for our open source software as-a-service. What kind of pathetic business model is that?!?

We learned a tough lesson this week. By accidentally open sourcing our software, it has become nothing more than a platform bastardised by open collaboration and trampled by an influx of clients and partners. If only we had the prescience to patent a proprietary code base. Imagine how much further ahead we, and the IoT, would be today.