threelyActive

Three year anniversary of reelyActive

Today, August 1st, 2015, marks, from an official perspective, the three year anniversary of the moral entity known colloquially as reelyActive, and more formally as 9266-5777 Québec inc. Although today we may enter our fourth fiscal year, in reality we embarked on full-time development of the project in the first days of 2012. And the name reelyActive? It was registered as a dot-com as far back as April 16th, 2011 when I, (Jeffrey Dungen, co-founder and CEO) sparked on the idea of Active RFID infrastructure in a reel configuration, connected the terms with a ‘y‘, and took advantage of the availability of the domain name.

We tell the right story to the right audience at the right time.

The above slogan is one that we began using in the Fall of 2014 (in yet another attempt) to explain what reelyActive does. I’m proud of that slogan because I feel it extends elegantly to all types of societies, not just those of low-power wireless devices, or humans. But before we digress, let’s put that slogan to the test, because chances are that if you, the audience, have read this far, you’re genuinely interested in our story on this, our anniversary.

In the summer of 2010, in an unmemorable food court café, I sat down opposite a very striking man with the most ridiculous beard. It was a curious moment, because I too had a most ridiculous moustache. There we were, two people at a turning point in our own lives, endowed with intentionally-grown fur on our faces, meeting for the first time. It felt like our whiskers tingled simultaneously and without words, we immediately knew our paths had crossed for a reason. And when those words came, they brought confirmation. “Imagine there were transparency across the world” proposed the bearded man “because you could see anywhere in real-time”. That man was Drew Sechrist, the founder of Koozoo (neé Kuuzuu), which proposed a crowdsourced network of cameras pointed at public spaces all over the globe to foster transparency and real-time understanding through computer vision.

None shall shave!

The facial hair, shown above, lasted until Christmas of 2010 when, upon seeing a photo of my bare face, Drew had his beard professionally removed, knowing himself victorious in the unofficial man-test.

Drew and Koozoo made me believe that it was indeed plausible, if not possible, to actually achieve global transparency and understanding through technology. And for that I owe him a great deal. He chose video, because it was tangible. With my technology background, I would have chosen radio. And for that part of the story we’ll need to go back several more years…

A few days after the 2004 New Year, another bearded man sat down to speak with me. Only this time it was in a lab at École Polytechnique Montréal, the man was my research director, Jean-Jules Brault, and his beard truly suited him well. “Jeff” he said to me (in French), “there’s this physicist who lost his luggage and wants to build a wireless system for precisely locating and tracking luggage. He’s looking for an embedded developer”. Cool. The only problem was that I didn’t believe in the technical feasibility of the proposed means of Time-Difference Of Arrival (TDOA) measurement core to the project. “Don’t worry” he reassured me, “there’s government funding specifically for such experimental development”. Cool. That would be my initiation to the incredible fiscal advantages of Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) in Canada, especially in Québec.

Coding with the baggage

And that was the start of my journey with Purelink Technology inc. which would last until 2010 and would take me to exotic places such as the baggage sorting facility at YUL, shown above, where we would sit on plastic bins, coding and debugging our Real-Time Location System (RTLS) using concrete barriers as makeshift tables. Smiling in that photo is a young Pier-Olivier Genest who would later become not only a reelyActive co-founder, but also the father of an epic beard (yes, there’s a theme here). The other co-founder of reelyActive, Traian Antonescu would also hail back to the days of École Polytechnique Montréal and Purelink Technology inc. where he would consistently show his resourcefulness, not only in the design and implementation of radio circuits, but also in the design of startup sleeping accommodations, as shown below.

Startup Sleeping Accommodations

Purelink made us believe that it was indeed plausible, if not possible, to identify and locate everyday objects using low-power wireless technology. And while we didn’t always agree with Emerson Nerat, the founder, on strategy, I commend him fully on his tenacity, which can only be described as being in a class of its own, and has inspired me not to give up on reelyActive through the many hardships over the last three years, and surely those to come.

Which brings us back to today, the third anniversary of reelyActive. Having survived, for lack of a better term, these past three years, we can look ahead with plenty of optimism that there will indeed emerge a global network for the identification and location of low-power wireless devices embedded in everyday objects that will enable a real-time understanding of the world, laying the foundation for a massive gain in efficiency that will benefit not only humanity, but also everything with which we share this planet. Yes, that sounds bold, but at least now we’re backed up by heavyweights such as Jeremy Rifkin making similar arguments, and the 3 billion Bluetooth Smart devices shipping annually in smartphones, wearables and everyday objects that can already be identified and located by our distributed sensor infrastructure. Plausible has been replaced with possible, and we’re well on the way towards probable.

We unlock the value of the data you choose to share.

The above is another slogan we began using in the Fall of 2014 (in yet another attempt) to explain why reelyActive matters. I’m perhaps even more proud of that slogan because, to me, it encapsulates how the Internet of Things empowers the individual within a society, be it human or otherwise. Sure, you’re likely left scratching your head at how that actually happens. But if we put the technology aside for a moment, imagine your next trip across town where you hop on and off sidewalks, buses, private cars, taxis, bicycles, (hoverboards?) arriving as efficiently as possible. All it takes is real-time understanding of space and the vehicles that occupy it, including their state, which their operators can simply choose to share.

This Fall, a colleague will be moving his family from Europe to join us in Montréal. When we first spoke, he highlighted that we were the only IoT startup he found, after extensive research, with a “user-centric value proposition”, referring to the aforementioned slogan. Another colleague is moving his family from South America to join us in “working toward a more efficient world”. Our team is growing with world-class talent rallied around a common vision. And that is, by far, what makes me the most optimistic about what can be accomplished over the next twenty years, a period of time following which we will again be able to mash up a number up with our name: twenty-threelyActive. A man can grow a hell of a beard in that time!

Smart Spaces in 137 Seconds?

Just over a year ago we published a blog post entitled “Beyond the Beacon: BLE Just Got Reel where we showed how our technology could detect and identify iOS7 devices using Bluetooth Smart technology. The video from that post has been viewed over ten thousand times, is featured in this GigaOM article and helped us land an opportunity to present at Bluetooth World in April 2014.

The above video crams into 137 seconds all of the progress we’ve made since then. And this blog post will help direct the curious viewer to all of the little bits which together comprise what’s shown in the video.

What are those black and white hardware devices?

We call them reelceivers, we designed them from the ground up, and what they do is listen for wireless advertising packets from nearby devices. In other words, they detect and identify things like beacons, wearables, smartphones and our active RFID tags. Here’s how to find out more:

What’s the open-source software running on the PC?

It would have taken way too much time to show it all in the video, so we’ll direct you to everything here:

  • barnowl is our middleware package which interfaces with the hardware
  • hlc-server is a contextual API built around barnowl
  • smartspaces is the webpage you see in the video, including the server-side part behind the scenes
  • Make a Smart Space is the tutorial on diyActive that brings it all together, and is your best starting point (and yes, it features the video too!)

What’s the “one API call” mentioned in the video?

You just ask hlc-server what is /at/place (where place is a human-friendly location name) and it will return to you:

  • a list of all the devices that are present
  • a processed version of whatever they sent in their last wireless transmission(s)
  • a link to any data associated with that device (for example: this is Jeff’s JSON)

That last one is what makes the technology so powerful. Anyone can associate digital information with their wireless device: hlc-server just makes the link between the unique device identifier (for instance the MAC address) and a URL which lists all the data in JSON format. Have a look at the Hyperlocal Context page of our website and if you’re still keen to know more, read our scientific article: Hyperlocal Context to Facilitate an Internet of Things Understanding of the World.

What are all the devices shown on the screen?

In no particular order:

Yeah, Smart Spaces are detecting more and more of the billions of Bluetooth Smart devices shipping every year! hlc-server can determine the device type of most of these based on either the UUID it transmits or the companyCode. If you’d like your device to be recognizable too, please contact us and we’ll include it in the next build.

Is there some way I can see that website live?

Yes, you can! Check out smartspac.es/reelyactive for live hyperlocal context from our office (which is slowly becoming a museum of trophies and prototypes as well…). Or smartspac.es/notman for live hyperlocal context from Notman House in Montreal, the place where we first experimented with Log in to Life, the precursor of Smart Spaces.

How did you make the Nexus 5 work with the technology?

Okay, this answer will be a bit technical, bear with us:

  1. the Bluetooth Smart reelceivers regularly send ADV_DISCOVER_IND packets
  2. smartphones (both Apple and Android) are curious and send SCAN_REQ packets in response to learn more about the Bluetooth Smart reelceivers
  3. those SCAN_REQ packets include the 48-bit advertiser address of the smartphone
  4. the Nexus 5 on Android 4.4.4 uses a public advertiser address (in other words it doesn’t change)
  5. therefore, whenever the Nexus 5 scans for nearby Bluetooth Smart devices, and a Bluetooth Smart reelceiver is around, the reelceiver uniquely identifies the Nexus 5

So, in the web interface of hlc-server we simply associate the advertiser address of the Nexus 5 with a URL containing JSON data and it works! Note that iOS devices can also be identified in this manner, but they change their advertiser addresses every 15 minutes or so which makes this technique pointless (but there are alternatives!).

How do you aggregate the tweets of everyone present at a location?

In smartspaces, we use the Twitter handle of every person detected to load their most interesting tweets and then cycle through them in the “Social View” for roughly 24 hours. This works when people opt-in with a compatible device and share their Twitter handle, and it’s reely, reely cool at places like coworking spaces!

Could you really decide what song to play based on the preferences of everyone present?

We’ve been throwing around this idea for two and a half years and nothing would make us happier than for someone to make it a reality using our platform. All of the ingredients are finally there, so please be the one to make it happen (and let us know when you do!).

Why is there so much audio static in the video?

This is best explained as a MasterCard commercial:

Digital SLR: $800. Wide-angle Japanese lens: $750. Directional microphone: $100. Not realizing that the 99 cent AA battery in the mic was almost dead until after everything was filmed: PRICELESS.

Thanks for watching and reading and stay tuned. There’s plenty more in the works!

The Age of Hyperlocal Context

In their book, The Age of Context, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel examine how contextually aware technologies will impact our daily lives. The video above chronicles our CEO, Jeffrey Dungen, meeting with Robert Scoble during his research for the book which provides a comprehensive overview of the preeminent contextual technologies, what they enable today, and how they’re likely to change the future (the most pertinent part is at 28:36). For us, there are two chapters that especially stand out.

Chapter 8. Why Wearables Matter

In Chapter 8, the authors present a variety of wearable identification technologies including the Aspen Snowmass RF Card, Disney Magic Bands and Nagra ID Smart Cards as well as wearable displays such as Google Glass and Oakley Airwave. They envisage a “contextual, wearable system that knows your location, your current activity, your preferences as well as what you are looking at in real-time” which they follow with the statement:

While such an omnibus system does not exist at this moment, every component of it is currently available, it would not take much to stitch it all together.

What Robert Scoble and Shel Israel are describing is essentially our Log in to Life experience adapted for wearable screens. For instance, at the International Startup Festival, we stitched Hexoskin and reelyActive technologies together to create a location-based activity display including all nearby identifiable people. And since it was consumable as a webpage, it could have been viewed on Google Glass!

Hexoskin, reelyActive and Log in to Life

For us, wearable identification technologies are the cornerstone to contextual awareness. When everyone and everything in proximity can be uniquely identified by their wearables (including smart phones), and each is associated with its corresponding digital footprint and/or personal preferences, you have what we call hyperlocal context: a digital representation of the people and things at a point of interest. Ubiquitous contextual awareness becomes a reality when all concerned parties can consume hyperlocal context via an API. In October, we shared our vision with the scientific community, presenting our paper Hyperlocal Context to facilitate an Internet of Things Understanding of the World at the IIKI 2013 conference in Beijing, China.

Hyperlocal context is the mechanism which stitches together location, identities and all associated metadata. While the principle is elegantly simple, the challenge lies in dealing with a wide variety of device vendors and identification technologies. To overcome this challenge, we’ve developed a multi-standard, vendor-agnostic hardware infrastructure that can identify and locate wireless devices in order to provide hyperlocal context. Of course this presents the challenge of new infrastructure requirements, as we describe in our previous blog post Rails and Reels: History, Infrastructure and the IoT, however, in our opinion, it is the most effective and efficient means to usher in an age of ubiquitous contextual awareness.

Chapter 12. Why Trust is the New Currency

In the final chapter of the book, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel summarize their thoughts on the incentives and trade-offs of contextual experiences. One might say nothing ventured, nothing gained:

We think the benefits we gain from contextual technologies are worth the cost of the loss of some of our personal information.

We fully agree. They proceed to argue that “people should be allowed to opt-out whenever they find the privacy costs are just too high for their personal tastes.” Of course, the ability to opt-out is unquestionable, however we emphasize that an opt-in strategy is key to gaining public trust and acceptance. Over and over, we’ve seen the public distaste for opt-out WiFi tracking and the knee-jerk reaction to identification and location technologies (see Big Brother and the Identity of Things), and it does not bode well for the future. What contextual technologies need are opt-in experiences so clearly rewarding that people, fully aware of any privacy they are surrendering, not only participate in droves, but further encourage their friends to join in!

Of course, in order to be completely aware of the privacy you are surrendering, there must be a means to understand what you are sharing and with whom at any given moment. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel eloquently state that:

It seems self-evident that we should own our own data and that any third-party should need our permission to use it.

While this may seem completely obvious, think about how your data is collected and shared today. How much time and energy would it take to sift through every Terms of Service agreement and attempt to identify who has access to what information? In our scientific paper, we argue that initiatives such as personal data lockers (for example The Locker Project) are a viable mechanism for managing what you share and with whom. While such initiatives are technically feasible today, the challenge lies in disrupting the current practice of each third-party maintaining their own (often stale) copy of your personal data.

While the gap between the status quo and a world where everyone manages access to their personal data is huge, there is reason to believe that this can, and will, change. Consider the following statement:

We believe the most trustworthy companies will thrive in the Age of Context, and those found to be short on supply of candor will end up short on customers. Transparency and trustworthiness will be the differentiating factors by which customers will make an increasing number of choices.

There is an opportunity today to differentiate and to offer discriminating customers exactly they’re looking for. For well over a year, we’ve been learning from the feedback on our Log in to Life experience, we’ve speculated on what the most intrepid people might (or might not) share in contextual environments, and we remain excited about the potential for a fully connected world to evolve into a superorganism. Everything we’ve learned has taught us to think, and act, differently. As Robert Scoble and Shel Israel conclude:

Openness and transparency create a significant opportunity for every startup that has giant-killing already etched into its organizational DNA. If we are right, then the Age of Context will give us an open new world.

We could not agree more, and we’re working hard to prove them right!

Rails and Reels: History, Infrastructure and the IoT

Hudson River from Amtrak Adirondack

In November 2013, after an eventful business trip to San Francisco and New York City, I (Jeffrey Dungen, CEO of reelyActive) decided to take the train home to Montreal. Of course a flight or even a bus would have been faster, but I’ve always been fascinated by trains and was excited to have an excuse to take one of the few international passenger rail routes in North America. The Amtrak Adirondack follows a beautiful trace along the Hudson River and along the banks of Lake Champlain. And the 11+ hour journey gives one plenty of time for reflection while enjoying the scenery.

When you think about it, much of the track on the route dates back as far as the 1850s. And while the rails themselves have been upgraded from the originals, the standard gauge is unchanged. It is almost unfathomable, in a time where consumer electronics become obsolete in years if not months, that a technology infrastructure, such as railroads, could remain relevant for centuries!

It took true pioneers to build the first railroads. Imagine convincing someone who had never seen a train of the value of this new transportation infrastructure. “Railroads would better connect towns, cities and resources” you might say. “But those places are already connected by waterways and primitive roads” they might say. The pioneers, however, weren’t thinking about what railroads were (an accessible and modular means to move freight and passengers over land), they were thinking about what railroads enabled, for instance, the potential to colonize the United States and Canada.

The train ride brought familiarity to that scenario. At reelyActive, we’re proposing infrastructure to better connect people, places and things. “But don’t smartphones already do that?” say many critics. However, just like the railroad pioneers, we are less concerned about what that infrastructure is (an accessible and modular means to move data packets among massive numbers of devices), and rather focused on what that infrastructure enables: the Internet of Things.

And, speaking of the Internet of Things, it has indeed been a very interesting year. The tech blogs hype the concept, and there’s excitement over talk of tens of billions of devices coming online in the next few years. Surely it’s not unlike the buzz preceding the colonization of the American interior in the 19th century. But how will it all unfold in the case of the IoT? Will major players like Cisco, GE and now Bosch become the Vanderbilts, Goulds and Hills?

In keeping with the railroad analogy, if the intent is to create a pervasive Internet of Things, there will indeed need to be a standard gauge just like the one that allows the Adirondack to operate on tracks managed by 5 different owners in two countries. But that alone is insufficient. The 11 hours it takes the Adirondack to cover the 613km route is not limited by the locomotive’s speed, but rather by 5 different track owners all acting in their own interest. A similar arrangement does not bode well for a pervasive Internet of Things!

In summary, the long, slow but scenic trip on the Adirondack was an excellent reminder that infrastructure built on standards can provide continuous and extensive value, far beyond what can be imagined at conception. However, the inconveniences of the journey serve as a reminder that infrastructure must serve the interests of its users, not just its owners. History’s lessons can serve to ensure that the Things of the future enjoy a smooth ride.

Facebook, you might “like” this

Facebook Live Directory

As finalists of Startup World, we were invited to a tour of the Facebook campus in Menlo Park. At the first stop in the tour, we were greeted by a flatscreen displaying a map and directory (see above). Immediately our eyes grew wide: had Facebook developed a live, interactive directory of everyone present in the building?

Hyla Wallis, our tour guide and veteran Facebooker, explained that these flatscreens, located throughout the campus, indicate the familiar “you are here” dot, list where everyone sits and display which meeting rooms are available and booked (green/red). All but the latter are based on static information. This is where our technology could shine.

We’ve been operating a live directory with flatscreens at Notman House in Montreal for well over a year now, having started as an experiment in our FounderFuel cohort. You can check it out right now, it’s simply a responsive webpage. Our cloud knows who/what is present because they carry a little keyfob device that is uniquely identifiable by sensors we installed in the building (see our technology).

How cool would it be to have this installed campus-wide! What amazing features could Facebook build with real-time knowledge of the presence of everyone and everything at points of interest?

  • Live locator: take the existing Facebook flatscreen application and add real-time information about any person you might look up. Are they at their desk, in a meeting, playing ping-pong, not even on campus?
  • Meeting notifications: did the meeting room you’ve booked just free up? Did the first person scheduled for that meeting already arrive? Last-minute room change? Could be a friendly reminder in the ticker.
  • Friend suggestions: did you spend time with someone new in a meeting, at lunch, at a hackathon? We know! How about you become friends on Facebook?
  • Auto login: did you just arrive on campus or at your desk ready for work? Let the system log you in automatically so that your colleagues know. Leaving campus for home? Log out automatically.
  • The physical Like button: do you like one of the restaurants on campus, or one of their menu items? Like what another department is working on? Enjoy the satisfaction of pressing a real, big Like button. Your presence associates this with your account.

Of course, we’d expect the creative minds at Facebook to dream up uses far more awesome than these. But the point is that all of this is possible today: we would merely provide the tools to identify the presence of people throughout the campus at points of interest so that their in-house team could build the rest using our API. Since there are already network cables running everywhere (see photo below) installing our sensor reels would be a plug-n-play breeze. We’d love to create a custom keyfob design in the shape of the iconic “f” for everyone to carry with their badge. And of course, there’s the potential to add BLE beacon functionality to the Facebook app so that anyone can opt-in and participate using the latest smartphones.

A corporate campus is a hotbed of opportunity for our technology. The Facebook corporate campus takes this to a whole new level.

Facebook Installation

iBeacon: a lighthouse in your pocket?

iLighthouse

In our last blog post, Beyond the Beacon: BLE Just Got Reel, we demonstrated an iOS7 device advertising its presence to our hardware infrastructure using Bluetooth Low Energy technology. For many reasons, as we will outline, we were very pleased to validate this functionality, which we were pleasantly surprised that Apple allowed. We spoke to Stacey Higginbotham about the possibilities of this beacon role-reversal which she summarized in her article Loophole in iBeacon could let iPhones guard your likes instead of bombard you with coupons in GigaOM.

Over a year in the making

We kicked off reelyActive at the start of 2012 with a vision to create a simple, accessible active RFID platform suitable for almost any application. Our previous experience in the field taught us that almost all of the applications we encountered boiled down to knowing the unique identity and location of the people and things in a space. This can be achieved by having the wireless devices in that space actively identify themselves to fixed infrastructure. Since the outset, we’ve been following the adoption of BLE since it enables active RFID for everything from inexpensive, low-power sensors to smart devices and beyond.

In the Fall of 2012 we participated in the FounderFuel startup accelerator where we were constantly asked “when will smartphones be compatible with your platform”. Due diligence revealed that the problems were manifold. First, even though BLE hardware was shipping in just about everything since the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S3, the operating systems of these devices provided no facility to leverage the radio for active RFID. Second, the BLE system-on-a-chip we required for our own hardware devices was only available in the form of engineering samples, delaying the development of our prototypes.

While Android 4.3 added BLE support, it did not support the peripheral role which allows the device to initiate the transmission of radio packets. However, iOS7 did support this role and introduced the iBeacon…

Enter the iBeacon

The iBeacon is analogous to a lighthouse: it represents a known location which can be uniquely identified by its signal. When iBeacons are installed in a space, they can be detected by smartphones to assist with indoor navigation or to trigger actions. The smartphone listens for iBeacons similar to how it listens for WiFi access points and GPS satellites to determine its location (see our blog post: Radio location demystified). Since GPS is poorly received by smartphones indoors, and WiFi was never designed for indoor location, beacons are a nifty way of improving the accuracy of location-aware devices like the smartphone. In the presence of beacons, the smartphone can determine its location with confidence and ease.

The interesting thing about iOS7 is that it allows the smartphone to act as an iBeacon. This means that the device can advertise its unique identity to its surroundings like a lighthouse. Of course, any BLE peripheral can advertise the services it offers, but the iBeacon is special as we will now explain.

Here’s the technical part

An iBeacon packet contains the following information:

  • 48-bit random device address
  • 128-bit UUID based on RFC 4122
  • 16-bit major identifier
  • 16-bit minor identifier

Based on our tests, the 48-bit random device address changes every 15 minutes, and there does not appear to be a means for an application to query this address. The other fields listed above are user defined. This means that an app could specify a 128-bit UUID which would be uniquely associated with the device indefinitely. Specifically, this allows the device to act as a glorified active RFID tag and requires only a few lines of code.

When run in the foreground, the app can allow the user to opt-in and enable the iBeacon with a tap. Based on our tests, this results in over 30 radio transmissions per second (per channel). However, when iBeacon is run in the background, there are two important changes. First, everything but the 48-bit random device address is dropped from the packet, and, second, the rate drops to about 5 transmissions per second (per channel). Even with the screen locked, we have found that the iBeacon continues to transmit packets indefinitely.

What does this mean?

It’s possible to create an app that allows compatible iOS7 devices to advertise their presence to their surroundings, and to be uniquely identified. The user is in complete control to opt-in or disable this feature in real-time. In the presence of BLE infrastructure like our reelceivers, the space itself can not only become aware of all the devices it contains, but also estimate their location. In other words, contextual awareness can be aggregated by the environment itself. We will present a scientific paper on this topic and the implications at the International Workshop on Identification, Information and Knowledge in the Internet of Things in Beijing in October.

If the app runs in the background, the device can still be identified and located throughout the space, generating potentially useful anonymous data. However it cannot be associated with a UUID (and hence user profile) unless the user brings the app into the foreground. The periodic random device address changes cause discontinuities which may nonetheless be stitched by a clever algorithm under favourable conditions.

How is this better than the standard iBeacons use case?

It isn’t. Both use cases have their merits. What we’ve presented concentrates contextual awareness with the space itself, rather than in the smart device. This favours interactive applications where the environment reacts to the presence and movements of the people and things it contains. It also works seamlessly even when the device loses internet connectivity, and it is battery-friendly. Periodically transmitting packets consumes a fraction of the energy required to listen for iBeacons, WiFi access points and GPS satellites, and offloads the computation of location to the fixed infrastructure.

Thinking ahead to the tens of billions of devices expected to comprise the Internet of Things, a non-negligible fraction of which may use BLE, there’s nonetheless a strong argument for installing infrastructure that provides both ambient network connectivity and beacon capability.

A quick conclusion

In a perfect world, there would be a facility for any BLE device to transmit BLE advertising packets with a UUID or accessible random device address at an appropriate rate (5-30Hz is overkill: for many applications one transmission per second is sufficient). Nonetheless, we’re pleased that Apple has enabled (whether intentionally or not) the active RFID use case we present despite the constraints we’ve identified. With any luck, soon all mobile operating systems will provide the necessary functionality for the world to enjoy interactive, contextually-aware spaces through experiences like Log in to Life.

Beyond the Beacon: BLE Just got Reel

We are very pleased to announce the successful integration of mobile devices with reelyActive infrastructure using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. Watch the video above to see an iPod advertising its presence to our new BLE reelceivers, allowing it to be located and uniquely identified, exactly like our existing active RFID tags.

This means that any device with BLE hardware and, critically, the software support to send unsolicited advertising packets, can integrate seamlessly with the reelyActive platform and participate in the Log in to Life experience [EDIT: rebranded as smartspac.es as of 2014]. No longer will a reelyActive tag be required, the smartphone in your pocket will soon take its place. Taking advantage of a reelyActive-enabled space will require no more than running an application in the background.

This demonstration has been a long time in the making. One year ago, Nokia announced the launch of the In-Location Alliance with 22 industry partners, touting BLE as an essential ingredient. However, only last week did we see major indoor location announcements by Estimote and PayPal. The reason is simple: while BLE hardware has been around since the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S3, full OS-support is only just emerging. This summer’s release of Android 4.3 brings partial BLE support, but does not yet implement the functionality we require. However, soon-to-be-released iOS7 embraces BLE and is the first mobile OS to support the unsolicited advertising functionality our platform requires. And, fortunately, the Texas Instruments chip we selected for our reelceiver is versatile enough to support these (arguably) non-standard packets. As we learned from attending the Bluetooth SIG working group in Montreal last week, the establishment of standards among competing vendors is far from an elegant process!

Earlier this year we blogged about the two approaches to radio location. For the reasons cited, we have taken the opposite approach to the companies building beacons, which further include Tod and Tile. Nonetheless, our hardware can implement both approaches simultaneously. In other words, each BLE reelceiver can advertise its own geolocation to mobile devices in range, making them location-aware. At the same time, the reelceiver listens for devices in range which advertise their presence and identity, relaying that information with either the cloud or a local server. It’s the best of both worlds. And, since our reelceivers have perpetual power and network-connectivity, they have the advantage of requiring no maintenance and supporting real-time updates, unlike many of the aforementioned beacons.

Next month we will present a live demo at the 38th IEEE Conference on
Local Computer Networks (LCN)
in Sydney, Australia in conjunction with the scientific article we are presenting on the subject as part of M2MCIP 2013. The reel architecture has proven its versatility by simultaneously supporting heterogeneous radio communication protocols and providing plug-and-play extension of coverage. While we’re excited about the future applications for smartphones, they are nonetheless only a subset of all the devices which support BLE. Many of the billions of low-power wireless devices that will make up the Internet of Things will employ BLE technology, and our reels will be ready to provide them with the low-power ambient connectivity they require.

Bluetooth Low Energy Reelceiver Love

RFID Journal Live 2013

Orange County Convention Center

RFID Journal Live is the largest RFID conference in the world and we had the pleasure of attending the 2013 edition hosted in Orlando, Florida from April 30th to May 2nd. This blog post summarizes our highlights.

The technology is ready, the people aren’t

The opening keynote speech was delivered by Roger Blazek of Bloomingdale’s, a large American clothing retailer. His team have been working on item-level RFID tagging since 2007 largely to ensure that the right items in the right colours, styles and sizes are always available for consumers to browse in store. It has taken several years to get everything in place with several challenges along the way. Roger explained that he expected the installation of technology to be difficult, but in fact it was quite easy. However, the most difficult part, by far, was change management: getting the employees to buy in to the new system and use it effectively. Finally, now that everyone’s on board, it’s possible to stamp out deployments across the hundreds of Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s stores. Takeaway: people play by far the greatest role in a successful RFID deployment.

Following Mr. Blazek’s presentation, a team from EADS (including Airbus) participated in a panel. EADS has successfully deployed both passive and active RFID systems including real-time location systems (RTLS) throughout its divisions in many countries. Similar to Bloomingdale’s, their strategy is to deploy and refine a system in one location and then copy it to other locations. Carlo Nizam, Head of Value Chain Visibility and RFID at Airbus, explained that typically this is as easy as changing the back-end pipe. In other words, the RFID system simply needs to be adapted to feed the enterprise software specific to the installation. And we were very pleased to hear Claude Lorda, Head of Industrial Innovation at Astrium, confirm that it is extremely difficult to calculate the ROI for RTLS, and that typically they’ve simply approved projects based on gut feeling. That has been a successful strategy for EADS, but it’s difficult to imagine that approach going viral among Fortune 500 companies. Takeaway: again people play by far the greatest role in a successful RFID deployment, first and foremost those who approve and champion the project.

Collaboration not Competition

Exploring the exhibition floor, it was great to see and meet many of the companies we’ve identified as complementary or competitive to reelyActive. Some of the people working the floor have been in the RFID game as long as or longer than us, and we’ve all had an interesting ride with great war stories to share!

It was refreshing to see how many companies are leaning towards collaboration rather than competition. There are far more potential applications for RFID than there are vendors with hyper-targeted solutions, so it makes sense to direct any potential client to the most appropriate vendor. On multiple occasions I saw the vendors at a booth point their visitors towards another booth. Mary from AWID even went as far as taking a small stack of our business cards to pass to her booth visitors who needed an active RFID solution rather than their passive!

Competition still exists, of course, and we felt it strongest amongst the WiFi RTLS vendors. WiFi RTLS can leverage existing WiFi infrastructure, an advantage highly touted by vendors against other RTLS systems. But in practice, WiFi RTLS systems often fall short of expectations, a fact bemoaned by many former clients and vendors of other technologies who arguably offered a more suitable solution for the given client. In our opinion, when early adopters receive the best possible advice and deploy the most appropriate system of all those available, the industry as a whole stands to gain from the visibility and the positive customer experience.

Simplicity and Accessibility

On February 13th, 2012, a month after full-time work on reelyActive began, Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal wrote the following:

I recently received an e-mail from a person working at an art gallery, who wanted to know where she could purchase a simple radio frequency identification system that would enable her to tag items being moved into storage, so that they could be quickly inventoried and retrieved when needed. Regrettably, I had to confess that I was unaware of such a solution. And I’ve had to give other people that answer as well. I think it’s unfortunate, because based on the volume of calls and e-mails I receive, I know that there is a demand for simple, easy-to-deploy RFID solutions allowing someone to quickly count items and transfer collected data to a laptop or a desktop computer. I’m sure that for every call I get, there are dozens of people who never contact me.

At the time, this statement validated our vision to create simple, accessible cloud-based active RFID, addressing the thousands of use cases like the one above. Did we find a vendor at RFID Journal Live 2013 who offered just such a solution? No.

That’s unfortunate for the industry, because the vast majority of inquiries are, and will continue to be, for small-scale deployments. But, as Bloomingdale’s and EADS have shown, once a small-scale deployment is proven, it can easily be duplicated many times over, providing economies of scale to the client(s) and lucrative business to the vendor. That’s why 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. A lot can happen in a year and we look forward to RFID Journal Live 2014!

Rallying around a better M2M solution

Rallye Sanair 2013 Flying Finish

Imagine the following set of requirements: you need to identify and time cars at rally finishes, they’ll be travelling as fast as they can in any weather condition imaginable, often in remote areas. Oh, and you need to send the data to the Internet as well as make it available locally for the control marshal.

That’s exactly the challenge we faced last weekend at Rallye Sanair. Currently it takes at least three people to work a flying finish: one to whistle as the car passes, another to note the time of the whistle (see the photo above) and another to copy this time into the competitors’ route card. The little box you see in the photo can replace the two gentlemen: it detects an active RFID tag placed inside the car and communicates the identity in real-time over WiFi to a computer next to the third marshal. And in practice, it works great as long as there’s line-of-sight between the box and computer and the latter’s clock is synchronized with official rally time.

The problem, however, is Internet connectivity. Granted, Rallye Sanair has good cellular coverage unlike many Canadian rallies. But we were relying on a BYOD approach where the marshal’s computer would connect to the Internet via a cellular dongle. Terrific in theory yet problematic in practice. In short, it’s no fun troubleshooting someone else’s computer with spotty Internet while it’s raining sideways and your fingers are frozen. Let’s not even consider what that would be like on a remote winter rally! Ideally, the ‘box’ would function standalone: autonomously connecting to the Internet and synchronizing its own clock automatically. The information it collects could still be provided to the marshal by a local link.

So, how do you connect a ‘box’ to the Internet? Well, that’s exactly the challenge of the Internet of Things! Ideally there would be a ubiquitous wireless network where Things could economically communicate short messages (like car number, control number and timestamp) to the Internet. This actually exists in France right now where Sigfox has built just such a network. Neul is working on the same thing using television whitespace. But alas, for now, in North America at least, we must rely on the cellular carriers.

Given those constraints, here’s what we’ve come up with. Start with an economical Linux single-board computer like the BeagleBone (the soon-to-be-released BeagleBone Black costs only $45). Add a Sierra Wireless (now Netgear) AirCard 330U which can connect to several generations of cellular networks and which includes a GPS (clock synchronization solved!). Toss in a sealed lead-acid battery and a reelyActive reelceiver and enclose it in a weatherproof box. You have an all-in-one solution with an off-the-shelf BOM, and Rogers is kind enough to offer plans starting at $5/month (even for businesses).

Most economical M2M solution in the Americas?

A rally checkpoint in a box, awesome! But what’s the point? Many have pointed out that the tiny rally market will never sustain a profitable business. Absolutely true. However, the problem we’re solving is one of the most challenging among a large family of similar problems. Are all my workers and equipment present at the remote worksite? Did I leave behind an important tool from my truck, and where? How many bikes are at the bike share? What cars are in my parking lot and when did they arrive? Is my child at the playground? One Thing to reel them all.

What we’ve learned from rally is that accessible M2M (machine-to-machine) Internet connectivity remains a key blocker for many applications, but there are viable workarounds pending the establishment of a global, wireless network specifically designed for the Internet of Things.

Radio location demystified

Radio Location Demystified

It comes as a surprise to many that indoor location is a core feature of reelyActive. “Isn’t that a solved problem?” The short answer is no. A sufficiently accurate, low-energy (battery-friendly) solution that makes use of an existing, ubiquitous infrastructure simply does not exist today. The intent of this blog post is to familiarize the reader with the basic mechanics of radio location to better understand the inherent challenges, and to clarify the reelyActive approach.

Listen or Speak?

Imagine you suddenly find yourself in an unknown place and it’s pitch black. You can’t see where you are, but it’s important that you find out. Consider the following two options:

  1. you listen to decipher your location based on the unique sound environment
  2. you shout out your name hoping that someone is listening, understands and locates you

Essentially, these represent the two common and fundamentally different options in indoor location. Do you expend a lot of energy listening? Do you simply shout out your name and hope someone else figures it out? In either case, your chances are best only when there are a lot of sounds or people listening nearby.

Listen Smart Devices

The smart device is well suited to the listening model. It hears WiFi routers and cell towers in range (indoors, it struggles to hear GPS satellites, so we’ll exclude this technology from the discussion). Since routers and towers are uniquely identifiable, by knowing their fixed locations, it’s possible to estimate the device location based on their signal strength and identity.

Information about radio infrastructure location and identity, being subject to continuous update, is centrally stored in the cloud. So the smart device must tell the cloud what it hears before its location can be determined. If the cloud responds to the smart device, then both know the current location and the device is said to be “location aware”. See the diagram on the left below.

Radio Location: Listen vs. Speak

Speak RFID

Active Radio Frequency IDentification (Active RFID) devices are well suited to the speaking model. Active RFID devices transmit their unique identifier periodically and rely on nearby infrastructure to estimate their location. As long as there are infrastructure nodes that hear the transmission, given their fixed locations, it’s possible to estimate the location based on the strength of the signal received at each. Assuming that the infrastructure nodes are Internet-connected, the cloud may calculate the location of the identifying device, which, in this case, is not location aware. See the diagram on the right above.

Listen vs. Speak

Today, neither approach is perfect. Here’s how the advantages play out:

  • the listen approach enjoys far greater infrastructure prevalence (WiFi and cellular)
  • the listen approach empowers the device user and service provider with location information
  • the speak approach is far better suited to inexpensive, low-power devices
  • the speak approach requires fewer, shorter radio transmissions in a single direction
  • the speak approach also empowers the infrastructure provider with location information

The speak approach currently suffers from a major shortcoming: the lack of an accepted global standard for low-power radio communication. Standards such as Bluetooth Low Energy, ZigBee and Low-Power WiFi have yet to cross the critical adoption threshold.

Regardless of approach, the accuracy of any location estimate is generally proportional to the number of infrastructure nodes in range and their proximity, and is represented as coordinates or as a pinpoint on a map.

The reelyActive Radio Location Approach

We favour the speak approach, overcoming its current disadvantages by creating an accessible infrastructure that supports both current and emerging low-power wireless standards. The location information in our cloud may be consumed by anyone or anything anywhere with the appropriate access rights.

However, unlike most systems which rely on triangulation to locate based on coordinates, reelyActive is instead about semantic location at points of interest. This is achieved by simply installing a cost-effective reelceiver at each point of interest and providing a meaningful semantic label. As a result, for any device which can actively transmit its identity, location would be available via our API as in the following examples:

  • IV pump #4 is in room 303
  • Carmen’s car just entered parking space #78
  • Sam’s smartphone is standing in front of the pasta sauce display
  • The temperature of the fish in loading bay 3 is 4°C

Summary

Pending the ubiquitous deployment of an appropriate radio infrastructure, indoor location will continue to be a hotbed of innovation. While the technique of listening and identifying the radio signature of an environment is prevalent and provides reasonable accuracy for smart devices today, the growing number of low-power connected devices of the Internet of Things will instead require an infrastructure that identifies, senses and locates by itself listening to those devices.