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Mister Beacon Episode #72

BlueCats before iBeacon - UWB and Bluetooth Compared

May 23, 2018

This week on Mr. Beacon we are talking to a pioneer in the beacon space, Nathan Dunn, CEO of BlueCats. BlueCats has seen the progression of the real time location services industry first hand, starting with Ultra Wide Band technology followed by a integration of Bluetooth beacons and then the advent of iBeacon. The value of real time visibility was first realized in retail, focusing on how people were led to purchase decisions. BlueCat’s solutions have since spread over many verticals such as sports, industrial warehousing and outdoor asset tracking, as well as hospitality. Backed with years of experience, Nathan discusses the challenges RTLS has faced as it evolved as well as giving us insight into what qualifies a project to be better suited for UWB or for beacons.


  • Narration 0:08

    The Mr. Beacon podcast is sponsored by Wiliot, scaling IoT with battery free Bluetooth.

    Steve Statler 0:17

    Welcome to the Mr. Beacon podcast. We're in Orlando in Florida. I'm speaking to Nathan Dunn, who is the co founder and CEO of Blue Cats. Nathan, thanks so much for making time to talk with us. No problem.

    Nathan Dunn 0:30

    Thanks for. Great to meet you in person. And thanks for inviting me on the show.

    Steve Statler 0:34

    Yeah, I'm really pumped, because, you know, we really have a broad set of guests broad set of topics. But you're right at the core of you're one of the original pioneers in the Bluetooth beacon space with, with the blue cats products. And this kind of iconic shape and design. I remember the time when, when I was getting involved in this, like six years ago, you guys already had product out there, and you had great reviews. And so you've seen the progression of this industry. So I want to talk to you a little bit about that story, what your journey has been like and what you've lessons that you've learned and where you've ended up. So let's let's introduce the company briefly for people that you don't know, Blue Cats.

    Nathan Dunn 1:17

    Sure, Blue Cats, I was started, really, we started with an ultra wideband product, which is the plus location system side of our business. And that was started in 2009. And the focus then was retail, we wanted to track how people shopped or just created a more granular database on really how people shop, because the most advanced retailers on the planet at the time and still today know everything about you as soon as you've checked out. It's all about purchase data. But the amount of money spent on laying out stores and what have you in marketing. There's no real definitive database on how you actually made that purchase decision. And so our curiosity led us to reach out and try and find tracking technology that led us to a company in Huntsville, Alabama, which we originally called time domain. And we started using the technology. And then a couple of years after that in early 2011. We purchased that that business. And so that gave us our first engineering footprint in the US. And from the value that we could see that real time visibility of who's doing what, within retail. We then branched out the iPhone had had grown since its launch in 2007, to a point where everyone had enough firepower and computing power in their pocket, that that became an option to try and use for better location. And so the concept of a beacon Bluetooth beacon, which we we just bought a fault, we started calling beacons, back then an SDK within any app, and then a cloud platform to manage that. And this was before iBeacon became a thing it was about 14 months before iBeacon was everything. And so it's amazing. The power of Apple for 14 months was a grind, convincing people that yes, this is possible. Yes, one of these can last potentially up to seven, eight years. And and you know, there is a cloud platform to be able to manage a lot of the rules and events. And because the market was really fixated on the old school mentality that Bluetooth is such a power hungry protocol. And BLE, as we know, is really enabled low power devices to thrive and beacons. So for that, for that first period, it was just trying to convince people that this was this was technically possible. And then Apple slept and I in front of Beacon and everyone's an expert overnight.

    Steve Statler 3:49

    So you'd already gone into this whole retail space with Ultra wideband. They came first.

    Nathan Dunn 3:54

    Yeah, exactly. So that that gave us that's when the light bulb went off with us to be able to say there is value in in real time location, effectively. And it happened to be in retail. But the reality was that we realized that there's there was a range of industries that could could derive value from real time location. And some of those applications don't need to be hyper accurate, centimeter level accuracy that you can achieve with your web. And so that's when the near enough is good enough. mentality led us to look at okay, well, let's focus on ease of deployment, and more importantly, ease of management. So a number of companies that we've spoken to over the years, it's very easy to walk into a meeting and well people with a demonstration, but take those devices and deploy 15,000 of them across 3000 outlets across the entire nation. That's a completely different proposition. And those challenges around scalability, that's what we focus on from day one with a lot of a lot of it tools that we created?

    Steve Statler 5:01

    Well, that's really good because a lot of the Bluetooth beacon players, they essentially had one product, and they kind of lived or died by the strengths and weaknesses of Bluetooth, but you have two completely different approaches to solving a similar set of problems. And if people want a willing to sign up to the infrastructure of ultra wideband and one really need the precision, you can do that. But if they want the kind of the light, low investment that comes with wanting to if you can do that aswell.

    Nathan Dunn 5:30

    Absolutely. And that's, that's our proposition to the market today is we've got the one platform that can run 100%, locally, or 100%, the cloud or a combination of the two. And the discussion with most businesses and most verticals, starts with the granularity and the real time nature of events. how granular do you need it to be? Is it a safety application? And if something happens, do you need something else to be triggered? Immediately? locally? Yeah. Or is it just a nice to have at the end of the week, end of the year, end of the month, run a report, and we and you've got visibility to what's gone on within a certain space. And we can fill that fill out a solution and satisfy needs anywhere within that. But also more importantly, as you can start with the light touch. And it's very simple to add additional features, as in when the use case arises. And the companies become more willing to to embrace the technology.

    Steve Statler 6:27

    And is it the same software back and behind both systems? Are they different?

    Nathan Dunn 6:33

    It is so that was the blue cats. And plus we're on a run out on a different trajectory early on, given the mobile engagement focus of retail, and that really dropped off significantly, probably 2015, or there abouts. And I've put that down to the initial interest in beacons were the early adopter developers and IT divisions of a lot of retailers and a lot of organizations in general. And that initial inquiry, enthusiasm was about understanding how this works. And once they've figured out, okay, this is how it works. This is how we can integrate an SDK. This is how we can manage events and, and manage communication, then that toolkit was handed over to the marketers, and no fault of the marketers, but they've never had this power before. Now, they've never had the ability to say the next 100 people that stand in this location, because they've come from that direction, we're going to say this. And so that was the next two three year love where a lot of I suppose commentators took a lot of a lot a lot of pride in saying beacons of dead or beacons referred. In actual fact, it's just the the organizations that beacons are relevant for. You can't miss this stuff up. Once you go, there's no reverse. And so quite rightly, they had to get their communication strategy in line with the newfound power that they had. With with with with customers.

    Steve Statler 8:04

    So who are the companies that have made it across that chasm that it takes some time to cross?

    Nathan Dunn 8:09

    Well, it's I mean, there's a lot of retail that we're all gonna make his famous six, seven years ago, are now now coming back. And a couple of things are different. Firstly, when a lot of them asked whether we have an NDA, and we can point to one we signed seven years ago, but generally, it's a completely different team that we're talking to. But there's, there's certainly a degree of maturity on our side, because we know what we don't know. And we've got the scars to be able to really, really set the tone for any engagement. And I think the a lot of retailers are coming as well, understanding Okay, there was some discovery, there was some trials, we understand the limitations as well. And I think that's the key where we've seen success is we start with, here's when it won't work. And here's when you're at the whim of Google and Apple. And it is what it is. And if you can't get your head around that we're wasting both both our time. Yeah. Whereas previously was, everyone was dazzled by the size of the retail that you were talking to thinking, here we go. Now there's real, there's a real foundational understanding that, okay, this is a legitimate time and a place for this technology. And thankfully, we've been able to stay the course. So when they they do do their research, they can see that we've got the scars to to guide them in the right direction. So who are your customers? We've got a range of industries like customers we can't really talk about, but we've identified four key verticals that we want to go after. And some of them within those verticals, as are the range of integrators or going direct those verticals or sport, industrial which can really be broken into warehousing and outdoor asset tracking. And then the final vertical is hospitality. Now it's a very widespread from tracking college football players to making sure meals are delivered hot. Yeah. But the great thing about our core offering and bringing the two technologies together so that we've got the one core location engine, that that's come from plus from the EWB side of the business, we've now positioned it so that we can ingest not only our our Bluetooth, but other location, companies and technologies are the ultra wideband as well as ours. And it's really around providing a service that can that can pick up the location, and then provide a solution that makes it usable and can integrate with your business. So an example of that is tracking subcontractors. For either safety reasons or just auditing. The fact that now that there's presence there on a construction site, is the is technically in the architecture. And that is exactly the same as someone has a table flag with our tag in it. And the orders ready, someone punches in tag 156. And it shows them on a map. It's exactly the same underlying technology. And so that allows us to focus on that that core product. And as far as the window dressing of the UI, and where it's deployed, allows us to spread across those verticals.

    Steve Statler 11:25

    So where would you say the sweet spot is? Where are you seeing more Ultra wideband? And where would you say, where are you seeing the biggest value the biggest economic growth for the Bluetooth side of the business?

    Nathan Dunn 11:37

    Sure, ultra wideband is relevant on in in two scenarios. One is the hyper accurate location in absolute real time, there's nothing comes close to a properly deployed EWB system, there's no doubt about that. It has the price tag that goes along with that. Now the price is is significantly cheaper than it was three years ago. And it's continuing to head in that direction. But the value proposition around your web is either that granularity is needed. And that may be due to a safety application. It may just be due to such such a challenging RF environment, that anything in 2.4 is just not going to work. Right? Well, you can't rely on it.

    Steve Statler 12:26

    So what what would be kind of like the classic industry example of where they need all of those things versus Bluetooth?

    Nathan Dunn 12:33

    Well, I mean, we we've done American football trials, and we've got a we've got a player tracking product is rolling out in college football. And we're doing that with it with a joint venture partner up in North Carolina. And in that instance, the the distances in terms of where the where the readers can be positioned relative to the to the players, a packed 90,000 seat stadium with 300, Wi Fi access points, everyone updating Instagram, roving cameras on the sidelines, it's pretty challenging RF environment. So a lot of player tracking systems at the moment is all about registering what the players done, and then download it after the fact, we can actually thrive in that environment. And so the packet we can get off a player is not only being used to locate where that player is in real time, we can also use that packet as a back channel for other sensor data that we can get off a player. So all of a sudden, you've got you've got real time granularity on what's going on that can be used post event to slice and dice. And the same goes for manufacturing facilities. Just RF challenging environments where there's a lot of multipath due to blockages and things like that. Ultra wideband gives you the ability to try and augment some of that. And then any rules and events are then done with software once you've got that that coverage.

    Steve Statler 14:07

    And the converse on Bluetooth, where scalability, you've got less hazardous environments.

    Nathan Dunn 14:15

    Yeah, and Bluetooth really starts with, as I mentioned previously near enough is good enough from it from an accuracy standpoint. And so we do have a as I said, leveraging the EWB location engine, we're achieving quite good today tracking using Bluetooth as well. But the flexibility of Bluetooth allows you to have outlying zones and gates and checking areas where you just need to know that a particular asset has moved through a choke point right. Where it presents. Yeah. And and look, we're integrating GPS as well. So we've got a product where we can integrate. We can have our our edge relay bluetooth scanner on a drone that has GPS and so You're able to basically get snapshots of what assets are out in the field at any given time. And it's all it's all. It's all managed via the one platform, which is, which is good.

    Steve Statler 15:10

    It's killing me. We got to wrap this up, I could talk to you for another hour, easy. But I just want to ask you, what are you doing RFID journal live, it's like this is Bluetooth.

    Nathan Dunn 15:20

    It is, well, the amazing transformation we've seen over the last three years. You know, three years ago, we didn't exhibit where we attended, and only we've been attending previously, as well. And there wasn't a lot of RTLs. Certainly on a lot of the signage, I don't think you can find RTLs anywhere. And when we'd speak to people and say, We're an RTLs company, and no one really knew what that was. Last year, we had a lot of success here, made a lot of a lot of really exciting contacts. And we've seen a lot of opportunities that we got from there. And I think the interest last year in us was we were demonstrating our technology, which is unique at a tradeshow for some location companies. And we're all about real time location. This year, you walk around, and I've seen probably 1010 booths that have RTLs printed on it. So I think the timing is right, the market is arriving at okay, we get the value in RTLs. And we're well positioned because, as I like to say we've never jumped on a bandwagon. Our core web team were part of the original team that invented Ultra wideband back in the late 90s. And we were one of the first in the world to come up with beacons. So we've never jumped on a bandwagon and then tried to make it up by by watching other people. We just got some very, very smart people. And we give them the bandwidth. If if if the gut feel leads them in a particular direction, with a little bit of due diligence we had had that way so

    Steve Statler 16:54

    It's wonderful. Good talk, Nathan, it's been just great. Thanks very much for making the time now. Ours.

    Nathan Dunn 16:59

    Thank you. Cheers.

    Steve Statler 17:07

    I asked all our guests, what three songs they would take, if they were for some inexplicable reason or a trip to Mars. And for another inexplicable reason. They could only have three songs, right. So have you thought about

    Nathan Dunn 17:20

    How many people have chosen Star Man since the recent SpaceX launch?

    Steve Statler 17:25

    Actually nobody.

    Nathan Dunn 17:26

    Right? I'm not going to. I was forewarned. And I have seen seen that seen the interviews previously. So all right, three songs for me. One would be rain song by Zeppelin's. Oh, nice. Just just an epic song that obviously grown up with. And next one, I think would be which is probably I can relate to the journey that we've been on as a company wouldn't be long time running by Tragically Hip, iconic Canadian band. And the third one, the reason for that? Well, I mean, where it boycotts were, you know, on the verge of being a nine year overnight success. And I think certainly that song is all about, you know, there's no short term wins and even a, even a, even a failure is a stepping stone to really getting what you want. So that certainly resonates with our journey. Yeah. And the last one, I think would be dire straits brothers in arms.

    Steve Statler 18:32


    Nathan Dunn 18:33

    Absolutely. If we talk about that a little bit more like an emotion, I might need a hug.

    Steve Statler 18:42

    It's got some significance for you.

    Nathan Dunn 18:44

    Again, it's similar to the first choice. It's just an iconic song. And I mean, you can you can find hidden meaning in there. The whole sort of one world but now we live in different ones and all the rest of it.

    Steve Statler 18:57

    Very good. Well, great choices. Thanks a lot. Now.