Battery-free IoT: this bluetooth tag harvests energy from radio waves

The internet of things sounds great, but has huge issues. Ubiquity is one. Battery power is another. Cost of sensors — and sensing tech to sense the sensors — is another.

But perhaps … we’re about to solve all the problems.

Wiliot makes a super-smart ARM-based chip with onboard sensors that harvests energy from environmental radio waves to enable battery-free IoT. In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, I interview Stephen Statler, a senior VP at Wiliot.

The chip uses a custom-built operating system operating on nanowatt power and communicates to the cloud via standard Bluetooth. Cost looks to be an order of magnitude cheaper than RFiD.

We chat about what it can sense, how it works, what the use cases are, and much more.

Here’s the story on Forbes …

And scroll down for the full audio, video, and transcript …

Listen: battery-free IoT from Wiliot

 

Watch: this bluetooth tag harvests energy from radio waves

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Read: IoT just got much more real with these battery-free bluetooth tags

(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

John Koetsier: Can we have a smart internet of things without batteries? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier.

A smart internet of things can connect places, products, processes. We had the vision for years, maybe even decades, but the price tag has been pretty high, and the requirement for battery power and other things like that has really limited the potential. Now, all of that might be changing. To check out battery-free IoT, we’re chatting with Stephen Statler, who’s an SVP at Wiliot. Welcome, Stephen! 

Stephen Statler: It’s a privilege to be here. Thank you, John. 

John Koetsier: It’s a real pleasure to have you. Let’s start off with the most obvious question: battery-free IoT, how are you making that happen? 

Stephen Statler: Well, we’re making a computer the size of a postage stamp that powers itself by harvesting radio frequency energy.

We’re surrounded by energy, and it’s really just been waiting for someone to tap into it, and that’s what we are doing. So we have this tag, we actually — these are computers, they look like stickers but they’re actually three core ARM processors. They have RAM, ROM, flash memory, secure communications. They can sense, and if you peel back the outside of the tag you’ll see something like this … it’s basically a chip, which is glued onto several antennas. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Stephen Statler: The ones at the side are harvesters, so they’re capturing radio energy at different frequencies. And the one in the middle that I was showing you, that broadcasts it out. And that’s basically the shape of what we’re making and starting to embed into all kinds of products from clothing, medicine, bottles of spirits, Tupperware, it’s all sorts of things. (I use the word ‘Tupperware’ generically.)

John Koetsier: How much energy is there out there to be harvested, and how much does that vary between environments? I can imagine some houses — I’ve probably got ten, maybe it’s gotta be 30 or 50 different things that are emanating some level of radio waves.

Some cities will be full as well, right? In some other areas you would think maybe in … I don’t know, an ocean-going ship with cargo would be pretty poor in terms of radio waves. What are you finding? What do you see? 

Stephen Statler

Stephen Statler, SVP of Marketing & BD at Wiliot

Stephen Statler: Yeah, I think what you just said is right.

There’s a lot of different energy sources in most urban environments, you think about it — we’ve got FM radio. You’ve got television. You’ve got digital radio and TV. You have different kinds of cell phone signals: 2G, 3G, 5G all using all loads of different bandwidths. You have wifi, different bands of wifi. Then you have ZigBee controlling your lights. Now Amazon’s got these cameras and doorbells that are using a technology called LoRa which is down at 900 megahertz.

So, the net is we are just surrounded by this sea of energy. If you could see it, if you had some reptilian vision to see it, you would see a rainbow of colors surrounding you. The problem is none of those signals are very strong, which is a good thing, otherwise we’d probably be like frying, and that’s probably why —

John Koetsier: The 5G theorists are going nuts right now; the 5G conspiracy theorists are freaking out at the moment. 

Stephen Statler: Precisely. The challenge is: those signals are weak. And so, the thing that our amazing engineers have done is figured out ways of capturing very, very weak signals and absorbing them into the chip that we have, and then designing a computer that can work on very small amounts of energy.

Just because you’ve harvested it, doesn’t mean to say there’s a lot of it there. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Stephen Statler: But we have a small amount of energy and then we run this ARM processor in a very special way in order to be able to operate at very, very, very low power levels — so low, that even photons disrupt it.

So we actually were doing demonstrations of our product I remember back in 2018, and in New York we rented this penthouse suite to get people in to show our product — and it stopped working. And the problem was, it was New York and it was a penthouse suite, and the lights were really bright. And when we started pulling the curtains, everything started working again … there were just too many photons whizzing around.

We’ve solved that problem now, but that gives you a sense of how little energy there is, and how some of the unexpected challenges that we faced. 

John Koetsier: Very amazing. I’m going to isolate you in a moment, and if you can hold one of those up again, that’d be amazing … while I ask you, do you store any of that energy? Is there a tiny battery on board or anything like that? How’s that work? Does it just harvest it when it needs it, or do you store some for future operations? 

Stephen Statler: Yeah. That’s a really good question, and the answer is: it’s battery-free. That’s really important.

So we only have the energy for a short period of time, literally like a second.

So we have to — we’re relying on the fact that there’s a constant stream of energy. So we get the energy in, we harvest it, we do some computing, we get more energy in, maybe we do some sensing, we get more energy in, and then we do a broadcast. And that’s actually one of the patented tricks that we use, rather than trying to do everything at the same time, we break it down into stages and use these waves of energy to do what we call Nano-Watt Computing.

So we use nanowatts and we use the waves of the nanowatts to gradually complete the computing task.

And why bother to do something so incredibly difficult?

It’s because if we jettison the battery, then everything becomes smaller, it becomes cheaper, you don’t have to worry about changing the battery because there’s no battery to change. So that means you can start to embed it inside things — inside of cardboard, inside of plastic, inside of fabric. So it really becomes possible to have a wearable, or genuinely wearable computer, without kind of feeling like something’s sticking into you. And you can integrate it into the packaging for products and so, low cost, no maintenance, and unobtrusive are all things that you get when you dispense with the batteries. Plus, it becomes non-toxic, so that’s an important thing as well.

John Koetsier: Very important, because you’re going to put these in a lot of places potentially, right? So I want to get into a lot of the capabilities that you’ve got here, some of the cost things, some of the use cases, and other things like that.

You’ve kind of piqued my interest though, because you’re running what you say is a little computer on this tag. Did you have to design a custom operating system for this? Or what kind of operating system does this tiny computer use? 

Stephen Statler: Yeah, we had to do that, because it’s a unique task. It’s not like you can take MS-DOS or Windows and do these things — too much overhead. So it has to be very, very efficient, and you need to be able to control some very special things and use things that typical computers don’t have to do.

But at the end of the day, there’s an ARM, it’s a RISC instruction set, and on top of it we have our own command languages that execute and allow us to turn the knobs and dials on these radios. Because not only is this battery-free, it’s also a crystal-free radio, and those of us who are like super duper old will remember— 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Stephen Statler: Crystal radio sets. The crystal is the thing that sets the frequency, and you turn the knobs and the dial and that impacts the station that you’re listening to. And typically the Bluetooth devices that you have, your earbuds and so forth, they have a printed circuit board and they have a battery and they have a crystal.

We don’t have either of those.

And the crystal is super important, because without the knob on the dial that tunes you into the right frequency, your — well, A: you can’t harvest, and B: you can’t broadcast. And so one of the things that we did, was say, ‘Well we’re going to harvest energy, but we’re also going to harvest time.’ What does that mean?

We’re actually listening to other radio signals that do have this timing in the waves that broadcast, and we use that understanding of the timing. We know, oh, that looks like a Bluetooth packet, I’m going to pay attention now, oh, okay, this is the timing. And so, that’s what we use to basically, as the conductor of the orchestra, to give us the timing to turn the dial on the radio set and get this working in a way that is interoperable.

And that’s a huge deal for us, because we say ‘battery-free Bluetooth.’ You can’t get the Bluetooth logo unless you can communicate with other Bluetooth devices. And last week, we went through Bluetooth qualification. So—

John Koetsier: Wow.

Stephen Statler: If we’d spoken two weeks ago, I couldn’t say that we had a Bluetooth device … but now I can, because it’s actually on the Bluetooth website.

John Koetsier: How fascinating is that? I mean, you had to design your own operating system. You have your own command language. You’re accessing some of the fundamental laws of nature in terms of the frequencies of radio waves to communicate. You have to operate on an incredibly limited power budget.

Very, very interesting, but the other interesting thing is, this is a new kind of tag, right? They’re not just one dimensional. It’s not just saying ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,’ which often you had in the early days of some of this technology, right? You also have onboard sensors, correct? Can you talk a little bit about what kind of sensors you have on board?

Stephen Statler: Yes, exactly right. Yeah, it has to be more than just a straight ID. You know, people compare us sometimes to RFID, which basically, as its name suggests, is an ID. And RFID works by reflecting back energy.

We don’t do that.

We absorb the energy, so some people call us a ‘passive tag’ because there’s no battery. But actually it’s an active radio, it’s an active computer, and that allows us to do a couple of things: one is sensing, that you referred to, and the other is security encryption, because privacy is super important.

These tags can literally be in your medicine cabinet, in your drinks cabinet, in your wardrobe. And you really don’t want your neighbor to be able to look at your drinking habits, what medicine you’re taking, or what underwear you’re wearing. So, part of what we do is we encrypt everything, and we encrypt the ID.

And we also, separately with a different key, we encrypt the sensor data which comes back to your question: what sensor data?

Probably the main thing, the thing that really seems to be capturing people’s imagination, is temperature sensing. So temperature sensing isn’t new. You have temperature sensors that [are] typically fairly big, fairly expensive, and I believe we’re the first ones to have a temperature sensor the size of a postage stamp that can talk to a phone, can talk to your smart speaker, can talk to the Bluetooth radio in the wifi access point.

And that temperature sensing— being able to sense temperature in such a small label, allows us to do things like tracking the temperature of medicine. 

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Stephen Statler: There’s been a lot in the headlines about that recently. And so, you know, one of our customers is actually using us to track individual medicine containers and sense the temperature of those, because that preserves the life of the medicine. And if you’re taking medicine, you want to know that it works. And if it’s been exposed to some temperatures, that would be really bad if the medicine didn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

But that obviously applies to food as well.

There’s some horror stories about food being delivered in these cold containers — ‘reefers’ as they’re called, refrigerated containers — then gets left in the car park, sun’s beating down, and the food goes off, because there’s a temperature sensor in the reefer, and there’s a temperature sensor in the refrigerator, but there isn’t a temperature sensor on the beef steak or on the fish.

And that’s where we see we can really make a difference, is being on individual products that may not always be put back in the fridge. And if we can do that, if we can get better at temperature sensing for things that go off, it becomes safer.

But it can also extend the life, you know, I don’t know what the number is, but America, Americans, we throw away an awful lot of food because there’s an expiry date. And we all know that it’s kind of … doesn’t mean a lot, but we have to go with it.

I think [in] the future, we’ll be able to use our phone and even the Bluetooth radios that are appearing in refrigerators, that will tell us how many days we’ve got left to  eat that food that we bought. And if we can do that, then we waste less. If we waste less, that’s a lower carbon footprint. It also reduces the cost of the food. It’s really a win-win-win for everyone. 

John Koetsier: Now, you do something that you call sensor-free sensing. This strikes me on the order of magic. Perhaps you can explain. 

Stephen Statler: Yes. So, typically, sensing is done by an auxiliary chip. There’s a MEMS chip as they call it, so you have your CPU, your controller, and then you have another sensor chip on a circuit board.

What we’ve done is reduced everything to a single chip, and that makes it difficult to do some things, but fortunately, our technology was born in an era where cloud connectivity is also ubiquitous. So, we use sensor-free sensing for a lot of things. Temperature is one of the sensors, and typically temperature sensors have calibration points that are burnt into the silicon.

We don’t do that.

Our temperature calibration is all done in the cloud.

So we get raw temperature measurements directly from the single chip and then we basically look at that, and we do all of the offsetting and calibrating up in a big data center, which means several things: it means your chip can be simpler, smaller, lower cost, and it also means you only need to spend those cycles when the chip is being used for temperature sensing, which it may be sometimes, may not be other times.

John Koetsier: Very interesting. I want to get into some of the cost things and the use cases that we talked about earlier, but are there other sensors there? Is there anything else that it does right now? Or, are there things that you’re building into it in the future that you’re thinking of? 

Stephen Statler: Yeah, there’s sensing that we do at the moment, so you can sense circuits being opened and closed. So just simple things like building this into a medicine bottle and knowing when the cap is being opened and closed—

John Koetsier: Wow.

Stephen Statler: We can look at that circuit opening and closing. And that’s really useful if you want to measure consumption … and that could be consumption of medicine. So, is your older parent or younger kids, are they taking their meds when they said they’re taking them? So, ‘regimen adherence’ is what the medical people call that.

But it can also be used in other products.

So we can sense the consistency and the level of liquids in containers. So we can sense if a liquid is being diluted because the chemistry changes, the radio properties change, and because we’re kind of listening to our environment, we can communicate that up to the cloud.

And so understanding that is useful, because there are a lot of products where you want to understand the dilution — medicine is one — but also consumables like shampoo and so forth. And, by having these tags built into shampoo bottles, then potentially you can have a bottle of shampoo that reorders itself.

You know, you remember the Amazon Dash Button—

John Koetsier: Yes, yes. 

Stephen Statler: Where you use the product, you ran out, you pressed the button, and people could never really be bothered to press the button, and they lost the button.

But if the button doesn’t need to be pressed, if it’s actually built into the package and as you consume it, it basically reorders itself, you can start to have a subscription service for shampoo, but even for cognac or scotch whiskey. So you never run out of whatever it is that you need.

John Koetsier: Very, very important. Very important. I mean, how could we live without that? 🙂

The subscription economy is going to love you.

I mean, that’s incredible, right? That’s good on a lot of levels actually, because you have a lot of these subscription boxes that come, or subscription products. And I’ve never signed up for this, like shaving — razors, and I use a lot of razors because I shave a lot of area, right? But, the point is that I don’t know if I’m going to need a razor this month, or next month, or when I’m going to need it, so why am I going to order this and it’s going to come every month or every week, whether I need it or not?

Now you can have something that comes on demand, when necessary, and there saving a lot of waste in the system. That is very interesting.

Let’s talk about cost. Cost is obviously critical. It’s one of the things that has really held IoT back, because we’ve had this vision for smart cities, smart nations, smart factories, all sorts of things for quite some time. And shipping, of course, has been a part of that, and products in our homes, and other things have been a part of that. But the cost, you know, $5, $10, $30 in some of the early days for some of the tags, right, was just prohibitive, unless you were doing it on massive, expensive pieces of machinery or something like that.

So what’s the cost of a Wiliot tag? And how do you manufacture them? It kind of looks like you almost print them. 

Stephen Statler: Yeah, we use a process, we borrowed it from the RFID industry. So, because we reduced everything to a single chip — you know, why did we do that?

Well, less things, lower cost, but it also means we can put it through the same machines that are used to make the RFID tags that tend to be dumb, and they tend to have very expensive infrastructure — thousands and thousands of dollars versus the cost of a phone or another Bluetooth device.

So the cost of Wiliot tags is the cost of the infrastructure, which tends to be much, much lower, because very often there is a wifi access point around.

But then you get down to the cost of the tag, and this is when I like to remind people, it is a computer. It does have RAM and ROM, and it’s got an ARM processor and all of that sort of thing.

So, you know, version one is now in mass production. So we have version one pricing and we’re about to — we’re going to be launching version two next year. So version one, our goal was: let’s sell a computer for less than a dollar. And we managed to achieve that and basically get significantly less than a dollar.

But with version two, we knew that we needed to do better than that if this is going to start to go into clothing and consumable products. Basically, our goal is to get this so that it can be free, because part of what we sell is that cloud service that does the decryption, the access control, the sensing for the sensor-free sensors.

So our version two tags are likely to sell from somewhere between 50 cents and 10 cents, which is pretty good for a three core ARM processor with security and sensing. And then, you know, our goal for version three is to get it into single digits of pennies.

And then I think beyond that, it will get even cheaper. At the moment, what we have is super flexible. It’s, you know, we can use it for anything, and we actually got a little bit of criticism in the industry. People are like, ‘Why do you need a three core processor with flash memory and all that sort of stuff?’ And I think it’s … we have some amazing engineers that have designed this. And I think it was a good call on their part to do this, because it’s allowed us to innovate. At our height, we were taping out, designing on the order of five or six chips a year. Most companies are doing well if they produce one a year.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Stephen Statler: And we were able to do that because we would get the chip up and running and then we could change what it did dynamically, rather than having to do another tapeout, another chip design — we could tweak the software on it, fix the bugs, and so the pace of innovation has gone really, really fast.

And I think, you know, with this super powerful, flexible model, I think we can get down to single digit pennies.

And then ultimately, when we figure out all of these amazing use cases, we’ll end up getting more specialized and the costs will go down even lower. But you’ll still have something that is smart, it’ll just be tailor-made for specific use cases. 

John Koetsier: Well, this is really fascinating. And quick question before we dive into some of the use cases, because there’s so much potential here — version two is coming out next year?

Stephen Statler: Yes, first half. 

John Koetsier: Version two coming out next year, and we’re talking somewhere around … for that you’re talking less than 50 cents, did you say? Or did you say less than 10 cents for that? 

Stephen Statler: 50 to 10 cents depending on— 

John Koetsier: Okay, 10 to 50 depending on capability.

So I want to get into use cases, and you’ve talked about a lot of them already. You’ve talked about the milk. You’ve talked about the cognac. You’ve talked about the meat that’s getting shipped in a container, and that’s really interesting.

But when you have this system, essentially on a chip, with your sensor technology and everything like that, the promise of smart matter — which I’ve talked about for some years — becomes much more real, right? I mean, sure, it’s the products I’m sending back and forth from distribution centers to homes, to stores and other things like that, absolutely, that’s a big piece of it.

But my walls should be smart, right? My walls should know when there is additional stress put on them. My windows should be smart. My window should tell me when it breaks. My window maybe should polarize or something like that when the sun is too hot on it or something like that, right? So many things in my home, maybe even the clothes that I wear, should be intelligent.

And it seems to me that with your ability to print those mini computers, and some of them you can build in more functionality and print them at a higher price to embed in a home, or embed in your roof, or in structural foundations, or whatever the case might be. Talk to me a little bit about the future that you see being unlocked with this technology. 

Stephen Statler: Yeah, at a general level, our goal is to connect everything to the internet.

And so, everything in the home, everything in the factory. And I saw a glimpse of this when, as a consultant before Wiliot was a company, we started to put active tags just on the pallets that were used in factories. And that ability to have a dashboard and see every pallet in real time moving around the factory was a stunning thing — my client was a Japanese company, they had robots and that sort of thing, but it was kind of embarrassing for the Japanese people because they would lose stuff.

When you lose stuff, things slow down, you have to write it off, it’s not efficient, so they were into the whole Kaizen thing.

So, I see in the future, factories where every pallet, every batch of raw materials, every item of work in progress, every item of finished goods, is all appearing on this amazing dashboard, and we’ll be able to be a lot more efficient as a result.

But if we kind of double click with the shift key and go out a bit and look at the whole supply chain, that’s where the real opportunity is. There’s huge environmental opportunities to cut our carbon footprint, because we waste a lot of stuff. We probably have 20-30% slack in supply chains that we’ve been optimizing for decades now, and they feel pretty lean at the moment, but they can get a lot leaner by joining up something we call ‘demand chains.’

So what is a demand chain? It’s an evolution of the supply chain where you start to see in real time, everything … from the factory, into the warehouse, into the distribution vehicles, into the store. You can see where the product is in the store. You can see where there’s surpluses of products, where there’s out of stock situations.

And then, some of those use cases, the bottles of measuring consumption in the home, measuring how often you wear shoes or a sweater. You can start to sense, oh, this person probably needs another one. These are all what they call ‘demand signals.’ A demand signal is people picking up a product in the store, so that’s something we can do now. We can infer when someone picks up the product in the store. We can know whether the right products are on the shelf, so we call that ‘inventory level accuracy’ on the shelf.

And the good thing is, very often you have these crazy visions and you think it’s never going to happen because there’s no ROI, but there’s a really big ROI in putting demand chains in place. Imagine saving 20% of your capital, not having to make as many things, because they’re all in the right place.

Think about the COVID thing where people were hoarding PPE, you know, that everyone’s worried they’re going to run out of the masks, and so there were nurses doing the right thing, they were trying to make sure their team is safe, and so they were squirreling away the little caches of PPE. There’s going to be … a vaccine is going to have the same problem. You’re going to have surpluses in one place, deficits in another. If it’s all connected, then you don’t need to do that. You can have confidence that you’ll get that just-in-time delivery, not just to the factory, but to the home, to the hospital. And that’s really where it’s going.

You know, what this looks like if you take an industry like apparel, they’re just starting to make a very significant change: a move to serialization. This is another kind of macro trend. Up until now, products have been identified by a SKU, a stock keeping unit, you know what the make and model of it is, maybe you know what the color is. But what companies like Ralph Lauren are starting to do, they’ve been public about putting an individual ID on the Ralph Lauren polo shirts. So it’s a bit like your car has a VIN number, right? 

John Koetsier: Yes, exactly.

Stephen Statler: So you’re going to have a VIN number for every item of apparel. And why would they bother doing that? That seems like overkill, but it really isn’t.

Because what they can start to do is trace the product from the point that it’s made, and they have factories all around the world, so if they can see in real time as the products are being made, they can be a lot more efficient. They can know if things are really being made in Singapore at the time that the factory owner claims they’re making.

They sort of become omniscient. They have this telescopic vision into their supply chain, and then you can start to look at things like gray market.

If Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren make something for the New York market where prices are low — surprisingly enough for luxury products — and it gets sold in Japan where prices are much higher, that’s a really bad thing if they gave the big discount to the local New Yorker and suddenly it’s being sold at a premium in Tokyo — they’ve missed out. So, by putting that serial number, they can start to do that; they can start to offer consumers the ability to use phones to verify, is this product authentic?

I’m paying a lot of money for this watch or this suit. I want to know that it really is a Calvin Klein suit, and so there’s anti-counterfeit. But also, if the product’s connected in the store, why do we need a cash register? Why not just walk out of the store with it and take it home?

And then, if your clothing is all digitized, A: end of losing the sock — the old sock problem comes to an end, which is a great relief to many of us who have a whole load of socks. But for people that have more interesting wardrobes than me, you can start to do better wardrobe management. And, you know, this sounds very frivolous, but apparel is an incredible source of waste and pollution. We as human beings, we tend to buy stuff, and if we’re doing well, 50% of the time it was a good decision.

But how many times have you bought something, put it in your wardrobe, never wear it again? Or wear it maybe once or twice a year?

John Koetsier: Yes.

Stephen Statler: Wouldn’t it be great if that apparel that you really don’t like could be given a second life? And this is where the circular economy comes in. And you can free up the space in your wardrobe and maybe buy stuff that you do like. So, the people that make apparel like this. But, you know, if we can put an end to fast fashion where all the dyes and pollution goes into the rivers, and make products that are really quality products that will last.

And if you don’t actually like it, there are new businesses that will basically buy it off you, and they’ll know how many owners there were — and they’ll even know how often you wore it, because your washing machine, which has wifi and Bluetooth in it, will know how often it’s been washed. And, it’ll be probably a better product because your washing machine will say, ‘Oh, I know this product. I know this serial number. I know exactly how it needs to be cared for. I can adjust the wash settings. I can even spot when you put the red shirt and the white shirt in the washing machine’ at the same time …

John Koetsier: Alert. Alert. 

Stephen Statler: Pink shirt alert — no more pink shirts. So anyway, there’s a lot. And then finally, if we come to the recycling bit, you know, the whole idea of the circular economy is we keep things out of recycling. Because recycling is good, but it takes a lot of energy; it’s inefficient to kind of break everything down.

But the one thing worse than recycling is not recycling, just putting it in a landfill. If we have customers that make furniture, they want this digital ID, this unique serial number in there, because when the waste management people get it, then they will know what to do with it.

It will actually be possible to have instructions in the cloud that says, ‘Oh, you’ve got this product, this is how you dismantle it. These are the toxic elements in it that need to be discarded. These are the pieces that can be reused.’ So, there’s a lot of steps to go before we get to that Nirvana, but we see it, and there’s a bunch of companies that are working with us to make it happen.

John Koetsier: It’s pretty amazing, and there’s definitely billions of dollars, tens of billions of dollars to be saved there, not only in all the things you talked about, but also what you touched on, which is the market for fakes, right?

Louis Vuitton bags, right? Is it a real one? I paid $500 in the corner store. Is it real or is it supposed to be $3,500, right?

Something like that. There’s a ton there. I want to talk a little bit about how much of an improvement this is over, let’s say, the average RFID tag that’s out there these days. How much cheaper is it? What other ways is it better? And can you put a number on that, a multiple on that? 

Stephen Statler: Yeah, this isn’t the end of RFID. It’s not the end of QR codes. QR codes are basically free, the cost of the ink. And RFID is very good, you can read a thousand RFID tags in a second.

The problem is, you need a thousand dollar scanner to read it with a handheld, and you need to spend tens of thousands of dollars equipping a store — maybe even a million dollars to equip a store — so that it can read everything that’s in it. A factory that has RFID everywhere is just cost-prohibitive. The technology has been out for over a decade, and the reason you see so many handheld readers is that the fixed readers are just so expensive.

So, fundamentally, when you have a technology like the Wiliot tag, the potential we have is to leverage the existing infrastructure. And so this goes and takes this auto-ID technology — because QR codes, RFID, and Wiliot tags are all auto-ID technologies, you can automatically identify the thing — and because the infrastructure is all around us, we have smart speakers that can read this, we have phones, then it becomes practical to scale it.

So, I think that affordability of the infrastructure is the difference between auto-ID being a niche thing, which really it is, to it being everywhere.

And then you, well, when it’s everywhere, then you have this whole privacy/security thing. And, you know, it’s not just a matter of someone knowing what underwear you’re wearing, it’s also a question of data ownership and accountability. So what we’re doing, we made a resolution that we would only ship tags that have security. A: ’cause it’s our business model, we sell cloud services. But B: it’s the only way to make this sustainable and to have accountability for privacy. If everyone can read an ID that’s on a product, then who is responsible for the privacy and security as that product changes hands? It becomes very, very murky. With our product, someone has the keys, someone paid for the tag, someone’s paying for the cloud service. They can pass the keys to someone else, but whoever owns the keys is responsible and accountable for privacy, for GDPR: in Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation.

And so, I think, you know, RFID kind of had this problem, but because you couldn’t afford to have everyone with readers, it wasn’t such a big problem. But the big difference is we have security, we have data ownership, we have access control, we have accountability for privacy.

And then, the other big difference is this ability to sense. We want to bring awareness to products. We want a product to know when it’s going off, and we want it to know when the temperature is wrong and when it needs to be reordered.

So those are all differences to RFID. One of our biggest investors, or one of our investors is Avery Dennison, and they’re the largest maker of RFID tags. They also make labels with QR codes. So, I think they see this as being an interesting tool in the toolkit bag for solution designers, and so I think … you know, I don’t want to claim that we do everything for everyone, and we’re involved in a transition, but that’s how we fit in with those other technologies. 

John Koetsier: Really interesting things. So, I don’t know if you can put a number on it and if you can, I’d be interested to know — let’s say you’ve got a large factory and the amount to fit it out with RFID technology is 100. Something 100. And you swap your technology in … is it 10? Is it 50? Is it 75? Where does it fit? 

Stephen Statler: I would say, in terms of infrastructure costs, then we will — if you’re using Bluetooth, then you could be orders of magnitude cheaper.

So ten, a hundred times cheaper in terms of the infrastructure. 

John Koetsier: Wow. Wow.

Stephen Statler: At the moment, our tags are more expensive than an RFID tag; that will change over time. But because of the fact that so many people have Bluetooth devices, the value of having a Wiliot tag on something can be amortized over many use cases.

So we believe it’s the brands that will invest in this. In the past, RFID was put on the retailer and the retailer very often was the one that fit the bill, and these retailers are running on razor thin margins.

Whereas if you’re a consumer product manufacturer, and I can save money in my manufacturing, in my distribution, in my retail, and I can actually deliver a better, more useful product, then you can start to amortize the cost of the tag — because it’s really adding a computer to the shirts, to the food, and you get all of those benefits. So, you know, what we’re doing is disruptive. I think it’s genuinely disruptive and revolutionary, and that is great. It does raise some challenges though. It requires new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things. It means that people need to acquire new skills.

If you’re making fashion products, you know a lot about dye, and fabric, textiles … probably don’t have a lot of IoT engineers. And so we’re starting to work with the systems integrators like Deloitte, because we think that this is actually, this — you put RFID tags on stuff so you don’t lose it in the production process. That’s kind of a mid-management decision. But this really becomes a CxO board-level decision of are we going to make connected products? And are we going to change all of the silos of our companies and start integrating the moving cost around? Maybe the cost of the packaging goes up a bit, but I can save so much money in the supply chain.

Unless this is being looked at at the highest levels in the company, things are going to go slow. It’ll eventually get there, but we saw very early on, the companies that brought a management consultant in who would come in and say the unsayable — say the things that would cause some people to lose power and other people to gain power, and could put a number on the ROI — that was very, very important. And actually, integrating these systems requires developers. So the good news is, a lot of opportunities for amazing, creative, solution design.

The downside is it’s, you know, stressful. You need to rethink how things are done. And so, that’s—

John Koetsier: Change is hard.

Stephen Statler:  It is, it is. 

John Koetsier: Yeah. Okay, this has been fascinating. I want to ask you kind of a final series of questions here, and as you know, this podcast is about tech that’s changing the world, and innovators who are shaping the future. We’ve talked a lot about it … most of this podcast has been about what that change could look like. I wonder if you could summarize, fairly briefly, what a ubiquitous internet of things looks like, and how it changes our world?

Stephen Statler: Well, it’s a world where everything is connected.

It’s a world where we can have, I think, a cleaner planet by making less stuff, that lasts longer, that’s better quality.

I think it can make some fun experiences, and I’m excited to just be part of — a tiny part of this disruption. I get a ringside seat to see all of these companies making these changes. But I do think it will change the way things are made, the way they’re distributed, the way they’re used, the way they are recycled. And, you know, we all want to think of ourselves as making a difference, and so it’s not often that you get a chance to do this. I’ve had a lot of interesting jobs in my life, but this is probably the most interesting, and I recommend anyone who’s interested in this to check it out. And I think there’s going to be a lot of new businesses building solutions on top of this.

What we have is really a platform, and whilst I think it’s fascinating, you know, it’s basically a chip on a cloud. What we need is applications, devices, new companies to deliver new services based on it, and that’s when I think this all gets really interesting. 

John Koetsier: Absolutely.

There’s a whole ecosystem here and it’s a very complex ecosystem, perhaps one of the most complex ecosystems, because you’re talking eventually trillions of objects, trillions of things in motion, owned by billions of people, and transferring ownership as well.

And different things being required of them in different times — some of these are going to be short-lived tags, some of these are going to be long-lived tags that live in infrastructure or things that endure for a longer time, like a desk or a chair or a table, other things like that. Stephen, this has been very interesting, very insightful. I want to thank you for being on the show. 

Stephen Statler: It’s been a real pleasure, John. Thank you. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. For everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst as well.

My name is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the ride. You’ll be able to get a full transcript of this podcast in about a week at JohnKoetsier.com, and the story at Forbes will come out right after that. The full video is always available on my YouTube channel. Thank you for joining.

Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.

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The TechFirst with John Koetsier podcast is about tech that is changing the world, and innovators who are shaping the future. Guests include former Apple CEO John Scully. The head of Facebook gaming. Amazon’s head of robotics. GitHub’s CTO. Scientists inventing smart contact lenses. Startup entrepreneurs. Google executives. Former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold. And much, much more.

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