The beginning of January is an exciting time. New resolutions are made for the coming year and new projects are planned. Our year begins with two events that ignite the passion in people of the technology world. Between the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and National Retail Federation (NRF), innovation spreads from coast to coast. It's a good time to spot new trends, see where products are headed and what will be shaping the technology scene for the months to come.
January also marks Wiliot's second anniversary. Birthdays are a good time to reflect back on milestones that were achieved during the year. When Wiliot was founded our vision was to create a new class of communication devices that would power themselves, be so inexpensive that they could be disposable and produced in quantities that would eventually grow, not to billions, but to trillions. We wanted to bring cloud connectivity to the things that were previously not yet part of the Internet of Things, such as packaging and products like clothing to which you couldn’t attach a radio. Bluetooth was the obvious standard to start with because the infrastructure is everywhere. Making that device using the same techniques pioneered by the RFID industry was theoretically the best way to achieve the size and cost goals. However, this would require that the entire system be shrunk from a printed circuit board crowded with chips, capacitors, a battery and a crystal, to a single integrated circuit chip glued to an antenna. These would be assembled in vast quantities by machines designed to perform the whole process with minimal intervention, without expensive “clean rooms”. At the start of 2018 we had some ideas on how to do this, but no proof that it was possible.
The list of design problems was even bigger than eliminating the normal components in a conventionally powered Bluetooth beacon. How do you harvest or recycle the wasted signals from the plethora of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular products that surround us? Those signals are a thousand times weaker than the power from a solar cell. A solar panel would never fit into regular clothing or pill bottles, so harvesting from light or even heat wasn’t an option. How do you run a system where the power comes and goes in intermittent waves, as it does with radio frequency energy? How do you broadcast without a drift between the transmitter and receiver, in the absence of a reliable source of timing e.g a crystal, an essential component of existing radio systems?
The answers to these questions came from an agile process that is familiar to the world of software developers, where new releases are produced constantly, but foreign in the world of silicon chip fabs. A new chip design is traditionally “taped out” and sent to a fab at a much slower pace, often once a year. The Wiliot engineers taped out five prototype chip designs last year. And each time they were bringing up the silicon, the excitement was palpable in the labs as we became aware we were establishing a series of industry firsts: like when we saw the first ARM Cortex-M micro-controller powered by RF signaling like Wi-Fi. A Micro-Controller Unit, providing a flexible framework for the development of applications and instrumenting programming sequences on the chip, running just on a few micro-watts of power; we knew then our chips were able to live, breathe and think. When the third silicon taped out came back from the fab, the question was would our new “baby” talk.
The answer came from an engineer who interrupted a board meeting, passing a note to Wiliot’s head of R&D. “We just sent our first Bluetooth beacon message received by a smartphone”. This confirmed the promise of a technology that can be embedded in different form factors, materials and can talk the most popular wireless language for communication with personal devices.
However, proving to ourselves that our baby could talk wasn't enough. We also wanted to check that its sensory system was alive. To exploit the full power of Bluetooth and the ARM processor on our chip, we didn’t want to send just a static ID. We connected the external sensor pads to the chip with force sensing material that can measure weight and pressure, and we saw on a Smartphone that we could also detect events like a “pick-up”. Knowing where products are in a store is great (real-time inventory). Having “lost & found” beaconing built into wallets, bicycles and power tools is even better, but if we can measure when products are picked up, then all sorts of new applications become possible. With the aid of our cloud-based processing engine, pill bottles and cosmetics products could reorder themselves when they are empty and recommendations for clothing could be based, not just on what you bought, but what you like to wear frequently.
It’s hard to imagine how a sticker the size of a US postage stamp can power itself and talk Bluetooth to a phone, but we will demonstrate our progress publicly at the upcoming National Retail Federation show in New York City mid-January (on the Avery-Dennison stand). For those that can’t make it you can catch a glimpse of the demo in the video above.
As it’s the beginning of the New Year, we also wanted to give brief insight into what is ahead for Wiliot for 2019. This year is about going from a very early demo to a shipping product, enabling the innovative brands who have joined our EAP, or Early Advantage Program, to pilot their use cases.
First, we will improve the range and coverage of our product. To do this we will make the energy harvester more sensitive to the weaker signals that surround us, scavenging the power and the timing signals we recycle from different parts of the wireless spectrum to improve the ability of a Wiliot tag to work in more places and power different applications. To get from our “demo with training wheels” to something that can work in the wilds of real world production environments, it is imperative we perfect first the innovations we are bringing with our technology: battery free and zero-bill of material operations .
At the same time, we will be boosting our sensing capabilities to develop a market-ready solution, both refining the physical sensing ability of the material and circuitry in the tags, as well as enhancing how those signals are interpreted and analyzed. This will be done with an intelligent cloud-based synthesizer component.
Ubiquitous connectivity, enabled by the billions of Bluetooth devices that could potentially read Wiliot tags, comes as a double-edged sword. Unlike RFID & NFC, Bluetooth signals can be easily read by anyone with a phone and from a distance. We need to make sure this identity and sensor data remain confidential so users and their products can't be tracked without permission.
Wiliot has decided to embrace very high standards for the security and privacy of our technology, in compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation policies. We have been working with experts and researchers in this field and have developed a security scheme to protect broadcast beacons, powered by a cloud-based solution, that protects from forgery, replay attacks, and tracking. We plan to release it via the Early Advantage Program in the second half of 2019, and achieve ISO 27001 compliance as a proof point.
Marching towards the end of this year, we plan to complete all the features necessary for mass production, like streamlining the tag manufacturing with application-specific configuration and lifecycle management, through our cloud component.
Wiliot technology will be available for sampling in 2019 via the Early Advantage Program, and it is slated to be opened to everybody else later in 2020.
Birthdays and the New Year are times for celebration and reflection on what has been achieved and preparation for what's next. Working in this field where innovation relentlessly changes the course of our activities, we have a natural bias towards the future and what is ahead of us. This is our state of mind at Wiliot. We are tremendously proud of our progress so far, but even more excited about what we can deliver next with our customers and the many partners who will build on this platform!