A brief history of Ambient IoT

The recently released 2023 Bluetooth Market Update includes as a “Driver for Tomorrow” what the SIG calls Ambient IoT.

Source: Bluetooth 2023 Market Update

To celebrate IoT Day (today, April 9th), we thought it would be fitting to reflect on how the concept of ambience became intertwined with the Internet of Things (IoT), in the form of a brief history from our own unique perspective.

Identifiable, not necessarily connected

We start our story in 2012 when, as reelyActive was graduating from the FounderFuel accelerator, Cisco announced the “Internet of Everything,” predicting 50 Billion things by 2020. We were dumbfounded by that number: why was it so low?!?

Having cut our teeth in Active RFID for the better part of the 2000s, the reelyActive co-founders considered anything automatically identifiable (i.e. by radio-frequencies) as counting towards the nascent IoT, with predictions already in the Trillions. While the early IoT hype bubble was all about connected things, we were already building for the identifiable things that would weave themselves into the fabric of life all around us.

Ambient infrastructure

Of course trillions of identifiable things need to be identified, and that requires infrastructure. Everywhere. And that’s the problem we were solving early on with our novel reel architecture, which we published at the IEEE Local Computer Networks conference in 2013.

reelyActive’s demo at IEEE LCN 2013

The concept is simple: a reelceiver converts radio packets from identifiable things into standard serial packets on the wire, which can be consumed and relayed by any computer. At the conference in Sydney, we demonstrated Active RFID and Bluetooth Low Energy devices being not only identified—but also located—using a single modular infrastructure.

The Apple Advertising Event

It’s timely to mention Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), because by 2014, it had become the de facto global standard for Active RFID, with a Billion devices shipping that year alone. And that same year something truly ambient would happen: millions and millions of Apple devices suddenly began to spontaneously transmit BLE advertising packets to discover and interact with one another.

I (Jeffrey Dungen, reelyActive co-founder and CEO) remember a day in May 2014 when I thought our BLE reelceivers developed a bug because they started spitting out an unprecedented amount of packets. I discussed this with a friend and neighbour who exclaimed to me:

“Hey, did you notice that Apple devices just started advertising, like all the time?”

I would love to know if Apple had a code name for that day, or if they realised its significance beyond their own ecosystem of devices. We simply took to calling it the Apple Advertising Event.

People, not Things?

Of course, around that time, BLE radios were finding their way into higher-end personal electronics such as smartphones and wearables, which were carried by people. And the ambient BLE packets transmitted by those personal devices were primarily at the service of the people themselves. The Internet of Things was looking more like an Internet of People, for which we were pioneering what, back then, we called BYOD RTLS.

“We are advertising” from reelyActive’s 2017 pitch decks

Realising the potential, we developed initiatives such as our reelyApp, which allowed users to Advertise[themselves] with the Physical Web. The one-liner on our web page became “We unlock the value of the data you choose to share” enshrining a user-centric value proposition for the Internet of Things (and People), where anyone or anything could share ambient data at a human scale, with the expectation of contextualised experiences in return.

Ambient sounds about right

The term ambient is often associated with sounds or music, and so it was natural for us to collaborate with artist Evelyne Drouin in 2018 to create Présences Périphériques: “an installation that gives sonic presence to interconnected apparatuses worn by viewers within a space.”

Présences Périphériques: ambient wireless packets as ambient sounds

Exhibited as contemporary art at Centre Clark, the installation provided us the opportunity to observe individuals’ initial reaction to discovering that they could “sense” ambient radio-identifiable things around them—in particular their own personal devices!

The one-liner on our web page had fittingly become “Embrace the ambient data in your space” which coincided with the ambient technology concepts we discovered in Malcolm McCullough’s Ambient Commons.

A sense of things to come

Fast-forward to this year (2023) in which we’ve already seen the realisation of the elusive $1 Bluetooth beacon. The economies of scale are now such that commodity sensors, including temperature, motion, magnetic contact, illuminance, etc., can join us throughout the spaces in which we live, work and play. In 2020 we added a data type called dynamb, for dynamic ambient data, to our open source middleware, which represents, in a standard, vendor-agnostic way, how all these “things” sense real-world context.

The next breakthrough in price point and proliferation is likely to come from energy harvesting technologies such as Wiliot, which promise stick-on-anything capability with unlimited battery-free autonomy. Of course that’s the same promise as RAIN RFID (a mature technology that has already shipped about 150 Billion devices), but with the advantage that the required ambient BLE infrastructure is actually nearing ubiquity.

Ambient infrastructure 4.0

And that brings this blog post full circle to our initial raison d’être: infrastructure. Fortunately, these are exciting times for ambient infrastructure, such as the WiFi access points that we’ve come to expect to provide us connectivity everywhere, as we explain in our recent Infrastructure 4.0 post (many support BLE). The problem that reelyActive is solving today is how to make any physical space context-aware by harmonising the heterogeneous mix of ambient devices and ambient infrastructure already present in that space!

Time will tell whether the term Ambient IoT best describes the next evolution of what started 50 years ago as automatic identification and data capture (AIDC). But there are hundreds of billions (currently counting just BLE & RAIN RFID) and soon trillions of reasons to argue that the technology has already become invisibly omnipresent, and hence ambient, in our daily lives.

Happy IoT Day 2023!

Open for business today and a better tomorrow

As we begin 2021 in the second (or even third!) wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses around the world have by now, with few exceptions, been forced to shift, scale or even suspend their operations. During the first wave, many companies and organisations sought out contact tracing and social distancing solutions to minimise or delay any such disruptions. Indeed, we were proud to have mature interaction detection technologies such as DirAct ready to contribute to these endeavours, which, moreover, offered to serve as a launching pad for businesses to adopt and integrate location insights throughout their operations, thereby emerging from the pandemic with a competitive edge.

That’s why this week we were pleased to read the market research note How Bluetooth® Technology is Enabling Safe Return Strategies in a COVID-19 Era. The report’s conclusion begins by validating what has been our value proposition before—and continues to be during and beyond—the pandemic:

While it is clear that many solutions are emerging that target COVID-19 related applications, there is benefit in devising an overall RTLS and smart building strategy that can leverage location insights using Bluetooth® technology to provide both COVID-19-related and other, wider use cases in a holistic manner while also opening up the possibility for additional valuable use cases to be added over time.

Case in point, our Desjardins DTM deployment, which features a building-wide real-time location system (RTLS). The office tower provides occupancy analytics from ambient Bluetooth® devices, data which proved to be particularly pertinent as occupancy patterns shifted drastically following lockdown and subsequent safe return initiatives. Desjardins’ smart building strategy proved its merits and, with our location infrastructure already in place, lends itself to new contact tracing and/or asset tracking use cases as part of a safe return strategy simply by introducing Bluetooth® badges and/or tags from any vendor.

Of course, most businesses do not already have infrastructure in place providing location insights. And, as the market research note highlights, the unfortunate reality for a typical RTLS is that “the implementation cost [is] higher than the cost of equipment installed in many cases” and “lockdown measures have made it difficult for [vendors] to implement their equipment in the marketplace.” In other words,

good luck deploying a RTLS during a pandemic!

However, thanks to the proliferation of standard Bluetooth® devices and gateways, and accessible open source software like Pareto Anywhere, a location insights platform need not be costly nor complicated. Case in point, in the first months of the pandemic, a Canadian poultry processor was able to validate the contact tracing use case for their facility, where workers must perform their duties in close proximity, using our plug-and-play Showcase Kit which their IT team successfully deployed themselves. The tests they performed in their workplace suggested that personnel tracking would better serve their needs than contact tracing, and ultimately they were able to validate this and additional use cases using the very same equipment.

Ten months into the global pandemic, for many businesses, the priority remains to keep their workplace safe and open. Desjardins and other organisations with advanced smart building strategies benefited from location insights on day one. For others, as we’ve shown, there is an effective and viable means to catch up. As the market research note highlights, a single COVID-19-related use case opens up the possibility for additional valuable use cases over time.

When every day is a new normal, access to daily location insights provides an edge for a business to stay safely open today and to emerge stronger tomorrow.   Here’s to a stronger tomorrow.

Can you measure real-world behaviour using tools designed for the web?

Google Analytics for the real world.   Several companies have self-identified as such. We ourselves have written a blog post entitled Google Analytics for the Physical World. But what happens when you literally run real-world behaviour data through tools designed for the web?

Notman House Google Analytics

The above screenshot shows what happens when we do exactly that, using Notman House in our native Montréal as the test subject. The dashboard (shared here) was created using Google Data Studio based on data from Google Analytics (GA), industry-standard tools for measuring behaviour on the web. The source data, however, has nothing to do with the web.

Since 2012, we’ve had our infrastructure deployed at Notman House. Each of the orange dots in the above image represents one of our sensors: there are three on each floor, plus one in the café (not shown). These ten sensors detect, among other things, the Bluetooth signals of smartphones and wearables carried by the occupants of the house. Our Pareto SaaS relays this real-time location data to GA.

Steps are clicks

In web parlance, we’ve modelled Notman House as ten web pages with users being not the humans themselves, but rather their Bluetooth-emitting smartphones and wearables.

An obvious shortcoming is the fact that many people keep Bluetooth disabled on their phone, while conversely, an increasing number of people are carrying multiple Bluetooth devices: uniquely counting each human is impractical. But when you’re capturing 1000+ daily sessions, the trends certainly pervade as we’ll now show!

Hourly “occupancy” analytics

Notman hourly analytics

The daily occupancy cycle of Notman House is consistent week over week (dark blue vs. light blue bars), and concentrated between the hours of 8am and 7pm (graph is GMT, hence shifted 5 hours from local time), both of which agree with observation.

Sessions per page

Notman session analytics

User sessions were far more likely to include the Café and the 3rd Floor West, which is consistent with observation as both are event spaces which routinely attract the most occupants.

Sessions by device

Notman device breakdown

Similar to how web analytics can be split into desktop/tablet/mobile and browser type, Bluetooth packets often include information about the device type or brand (see Sniffypedia) which may be correlated with user demographics. Indeed we’ve observed seemingly characteristic device distributions based on region and venue (ex: office/store/school).

The verdict?

Can you measure real-world behaviour using tools designed for the web?   With little effort, using only the basic functionality of GA, we were able to extract the three highlighted metrics, each of which effectively captures the behaviour of occupants of physical spaces. Imagine the potential when leveraging the extensive functionality of tools such as GA.

Imagine as a retailer creating a Data Studio dashboard which compares e-commerce and in-store behaviour side-by-side.

Now imagine the additional granularity and insights when both people and assets are individually identifiable by opting-in with a mobile app or carrying an inexpensive Bluetooth beacon.

Time and again the web has shown that those who measure outperform. Not only can you measure real-world behaviour using the tools of the web, history suggests that, sooner than later, you definitely should!

A remarkaBLE week in Bluetooth

The headlines:

  • 01 12 16 — HID Global Acquires Bluvision to Expand With Bluetooth Solutions for the Enterprise Internet of Things Market (press release)
  • 05 12 16 — Gimbal is Joining The Mobile Majority (press release)
  • 07 12 16 — Bluetooth 5 Now Available (press release)

It’s not every week that you see two companies in your competitive landscape acquired, in addition to the first major evolution of the standard on which your core technology is based! Amidst everything else that’s happened in 2016, perhaps we’re the only ones to remark this remarkaBLE coincidence, but it’s certainly not without significance!

In 2012, when we started reelyActive, our expected exit was an enterprise acquisition: build a better real-time location system (RTLS), raise the right eyebrows, combine agile innovation with access to the right resources. It would appear that Bluvision have done just that, which is commendable given the track record of outcomes for RTLS companies (our co-founders cut their teeth at one which inevitably failed!)

Over the past few months, we’ve shifted our immediate focus to the out-of-home (OOH) market which has a pressing need to reach and engage individuals in the real-world, in real-time, and in context (all the while measuring the results). It would appear that Gimbal and The Mobile Majority have come together to do just that for mobile advertising.

What makes this week’s coincidence so striking to us?

Where Gimbal and The Mobile Majority are headed, we’re taking our novel Bluetooth RTLS technology, like that of Bluvision.

When Bluvision CEO Jimmy Buchheim showed us his BluFi prototype in 2014, we knew we weren’t alone in developing “bring-your-own-device” (BYOD) RTLS technology allowing any Bluetooth Low Energy device, including the ones we carry and wear, to be identified and tracked throughout a space. This is the inverse (literally!) of what Gimbal and almost every other mobile-focused company is doing today with beacons.

But what about the future? To us, advertising is backwards, as much for brands as for Bluetooth packets! Which brings us to Bluetooth 5.

With 4x range, 2x speed and 8x broadcasting message capacity, the enhancements of Bluetooth 5 focus on increasing the functionality of Bluetooth for the IoT.

While the Bluetooth SIG are advertising (pun intended) the above features as key to the future of IoT, what’s key to us is that Bluetooth 5 hasn’t upset the existing wireless advertising functionality (which, for us, makes it the undisputed global standard for Active RFID). This means that the growing billions of people, products and places with Bluetooth radios will retain the possibility of being discoverable on a human scale, advertising what they want, when they want and with whom they want.

Our mission is to unlock the value of the data [they] choose to share.

And the week’s events have emboldened us on that mission, affirming the value of BYOD RTLS and of reaching audiences in the real-world, while protecting and extending the wireless standard which makes our vision a reality.