We have billions of smart things. How can we create a true internet of things with trillions? We won’t … unless we have a super-cheap, super-small, super-efficient chip that doesn’t need a battery, has significant sensors and capability, and can be printed almost for free.
That “almost” is still a problem, but the Wiliot Pixel 2 is a computer the size of a postage stamp. There’s no batteries. You don’t plug it in. And it powers itself by harvesting the energy from ambient radio waves.
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In this TechFirst, we chat with Wiliot exec Stephen Statler about the Pixel, about Wiliot’s no-code applications in the cloud, and how he sees the future of IoT and IIoT. A big hint: expanding IoT at least 100X from where it is today to trillions of devices, not just billions.
And that is when we’ll really see the benefits of smart matter, a smart supply chain, smart cities, smart factories, smart stores, smart homes, and much more …
Keep scrolling for the video, podcast, and transcript, or click here for the article on Forbes …
TechFirst podcast: this tiny ARM computer might just take IoT to trillions of devices cheaply
Transcript: the new Pixel IoT chip from Wiliot
(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
John Koetsier: Are we finally seeing the dawn of the Internet of Things at scale, in an affordable way? Perhaps.
IoT has had a ton of promise for quite some time, but adoption has been a little slower than forecast. One reason, of course, is cost. Another is complexity. And a critical one is support systems, a platform that works. Wiliot thinks it’s solved that with the IoT Pixel — a cheap, smart tracker — and a brand new tool, the Universal Automation Platform.
Here to chat is Williot VP, Stephen Statler. Welcome, Stephen!
Steve Statler: John, great to talk to you again.
John Koetsier: Hey, super pumped to have you back on TechFirst. Last time we chatted, you were talking about the Wiliot Bluetooth tag — it’s cool, it’s tiny, it’s battery-free, it had a lot of capability — now you’ve got the Pixel. What’s new?
Steve Statler: Well, it’s a major step forward for us. This is version two of our product.
It’s one part of a platform that also includes edge software and the cloud, but, if we focus on the Pixel, because it’s kind of the most obvious, disruptive thing — it’s a computer the size of a postage stamp. There’s no batteries. You don’t plug it in. It powers itself by harvesting the energy from radio waves, which is actually a very meager source of energy, but we redesigned a chip and we redesigned it again for version two to do this particularly well.
So IoT Pixel is a big step forward on what we see as a journey to transitioning from the Internet of Expensive Things to the Internet of Everyday Things, or the internet of trillions as we talk about it, which is essentially a hundred-fold increase in the number of things that are connected. And the reason why IoT Pixel is capturing a lot of interest and it’s generating excitement from us and our customers is that it’s a big step in terms of performance and range.
So, essentially it doubles the range — more than doubles the range — versus version one and it’s a lot more efficient at capturing the energy and transmitting it. So it transmits faster, which basically means you can get a more robust performance when you start to put it on things like plastic crates, and clothing, and medicine, and all these things that previously were offline.
You can start to track, not just occasionally when someone taps or scans them, but a continuous view in real time of where they are and start to get sensing information and all these things, which is really what we believe is required to get to that next level of IoT.
John Koetsier: And for those who didn’t watch the previous episode where we talked about your Bluetooth tag, which is now the Pixel … I mean, you’ve got things in there, it’s not just a here-I-am tag. You’ve got temperature monitoring. You’ve got things that can sense dilution in a solution, you know, how much of a certain chemical is present. You’ve got things that can measure motion or processes that are happening or not happening.
So it’s a pretty significant capability — even fill level, if it’s a liquid and it needs to be replenished or other things like that. Now, you talked at the time about wanting to get that tag in the ‘pennies per’ and you had a roadmap to get there, and there was some time, and I think, I could swear I saw something on your website or in the marketing PR materials that it was near zero cost … how close are you now?
Steve Statler: Well, it’s going to be a while til we get to zero because obviously it’s a computer, it’s got an ARM processor, there’s three cores, it’s got RAM and ROM and so forth. What you may have seen is our announcement that we’re no longer going to charge for our part of producing the Pixel. So we’re essentially licensing it to people that do make smart tags for free.
So today smart tags are made by companies like Avery Dennison, who are the largest maker of those things. We actually just announced a partnership with Identiv who focus on more specialized, sophisticated, complex, lower volume smart tags. So we asked ourselves how can we accelerate adoption? And one of the things we can do is not load the cost of the smart tags. And so we’re providing the license to make our tags for free.
And so, if you’re thinking of adding them to a product like a plastic crate or a hang tag, and maybe not every plastic crate is going to be connected to the cloud, this is a way of reducing that kind of speed bump so that we only charge for the cloud connectivity and the edge processing, which is what allows you to start to unlock the data, do the sensing, and achieve the scalability that allows you to have, for instance, a hundred thousand tags all on items of apparel in a store.
So you know where every product is, you can track if it’s in the back room, the front room, without having any employees having to do anything, which is, you know—
John Koetsier: Go back and check. ‘I’ll check in the back if I have that size for you.’ Exactly [laughing].
Steve Statler: Precisely [inaudible].
John Koetsier: I kind of love that because my next question was going to be around, look, hardware is cool, but software provides the value. So I love that you’ve gone to a licensing model there, where basically the tag is provided and you charge for the software, because people aren’t paying to have a tag attached to the merchandise. People aren’t paying to have a tag attached to their inventory or other things like that.
They’re paying for the data that they can get out of there, for the intelligence that they can have on how their supply chain is functioning — or not functioning [laughing] — this is 2022, right? So, talk to us about this Universal Automation Platform that you’re launching.
Steve Statler: Yeah, so the Universal Automation Platform is part of our cloud. It’s actually in alpha now.
Since we last spoke, we launched a starter kit. So previously it cost somewhere between fifty and/or a hundred thousand dollars to enter our early access program, and now we’re selling these starter kits for $500. And we’re seeing huge demand, they’re shipping hundreds of these things. And one of the things that you get access to in that, is this Universal Automation Platform. And what this UAP is — it’s essentially automation backend that natively talks to the tags.
And it means that you can, rather than getting some data and some analytics and looking at a dashboard, and then maybe a few weeks later deciding to do something, it allows you to trigger a Slack message if you’ve sold the last medium-sized black sweater.
It allows you to trigger an alert if an auto-injector with insulin is starting to reach above the highest level of temperature that you think is safe.
So it’s a way of having a very simple codeless if-then-else type triggers. And then we have a library of — actually a very large library, which we’re slowly unlocking — of connectors to enterprise apps. So these are things like Slack, but also Salesforce. So if you want to have automatic tracking of inventory in service vehicles and you want to know — warn the driver, ‘Oh, you left your oscilloscope at a site,’ or ‘You’re running low on this kind of a resistor in your kitbag or tool[kit] or maybe a low watermark to replenish set-top boxes’ if you’re working for a cable company.
All of that sort of stuff can be done without any coding with existing integrations, with enterprise applications. And that’s one part of what we’re doing to try and increase the rate of scale and this move to what we’re calling IoT2.
John Koetsier: I love that you made that kit available. I forget if you said it was 50 bucks [editor: $500] or whatever it was, but super cheap and super available. I mean, that’s part of the challenge of IoT, right? You said before, somebody wants to enter a deal with you, there’s multiple steps, it’s $50-100k, you know, let’s do all this stuff — now, it’s ship a box, right? And you can get started with small projects, and guess what? That’s the PC model. That’s the smartphone model.
That’s how almost all technology that’s big in enterprise starts.
It comes in the back door, some little department says, ‘I’m going to try this’ and there’s shadow IT — and there’s all kinds of problems with that, I get it — but, there’s also ways of stimulating innovation because somebody has an idea and they can execute quickly, cheaply, easily. So you’ve got no-code tools. That’s super interesting. Basically, a product manager or a line-of-business manager can take this and create something useful?
Steve Statler: Exactly. Yeah. We wanted to take the coding out of it. We wanted to take the integration with third-party apps out of it. Now, of course, there’s still going to be new apps. There’s a set of existing legacy apps, so maybe it’s your NetSuite, and we have things like that which we have connectors for, but there’s also a whole ecosystem of new kinds of software that we’re going to be supporting with these kits.
So the kits allow these innovators and early adopters in the enterprise to try stuff out, but they’re also a way of us moving from a kind of major account style we-do-everything strategy, to a partner ecosystem. And so we’re just about to announce a new edition of our partner program Works with Wiliot, and the starter kits and our partner kit are all part of that, because there’s new kinds of software that are being built that weren’t even thought about to manage things like serialization.
So if you look at most ERP systems, they assume that you have SKUs, but they’re not really built around the concept of every product having a digital twin, having like a VIN number in the sky if you kind of extend the car metaphor to other things. But there are products from a whole range of really interesting startups and established companies that are being built around managing this unique identity, so that every Ralph Lauren pullover has an ID and so you can — or even a creative food has a unique ID, so you can start to manage things like traceability of food for recalls and also extending shelf life.
Because you’re not looking at it at the SKU level, you’re actually looking at when that crate of zucchinis was harvested, what route it took through the system, so that you can optimize and you can spot, oh, the zucchini’s been sitting in the sunshine for three hours and that’s going to be bad for shelf life. Let’s, A, note that so that maybe when it does arrive to the store we put it at the front of the store. And, you know, we can also send a message to the farmer or the distributor to help them tune what they’re doing. So there’s a lot of things that are all related here. The starter kits are kind of this dual-prong approach to get the product in the hands of the enterprise, but it also allows us to enable this whole ecosystem of companies that are writing this next generation serialization software that opens up these new use cases.
John Koetsier: It’s a little bit mind-blowing, Steve, because there’s all of the unlocking that goes with smart matter — knowing what is where, when, how, what temperature it is, what’s happening to it physically, jostling, all those other things — but you also said the words ‘digital twin,’ and that’s interesting because we have seen the digitalization of …. everything in some sense.
You’re almost bringing in metaverse-type concepts when you say digital twin, and while you maybe don’t want an NFT of the zucchini that you’re buying and eating that night, but maybe you do want an NFT of the Louis Vuitton bag that you bought, right?
Steve Statler: Absolutely.
John Koetsier: And maybe that’s possible in some way, shape or form. Are you exploring that? Or what’s going on there?
Steve Statler: Yeah. This whole anti-counterfeit use case has been an ongoing theme since we launched the company about five years ago. People want that digital twin, they want to embed the postage-stamp-size computer partly just to understand where it came from, but also to know if it’s real, and that applies to luxury goods. So we have a bunch of customers that are high-end fashion companies that are interested in that.
But it also applies to medicine, especially in other parts of the world, counterfeit medicine is just a terrible problem and it can have really disastrous consequences. So, knowing that what your — whether it’s baby food or COVID vaccine, that this is actually gonna work, is really important. As well as knowing whether it’s been kept in the right temperature.
John Koetsier: Very interesting. So, as you’re seeing companies start to implement this, what are some of the results that you’re seeing? What are they achieving?
Steve Statler: Well, longer shelf life for perishable products is actually one of the quickest wins that we’re seeing. It’s probably the least glamorous of the use cases, but it’s the one that seems to be moving the fastest, so we’ve decided to focus on it.
The world is moving to reusable transport items as a vehicle for moving everything through the supply chain. The days of kind of throwing away the cardboard box that your fruits and vegetables, and even apparel, and medicine are delivered in is going away, because, guess what? It’s really hard to get raw materials. They’re in short supply because of all these supply chain issues. So we’re seeing a huge expansion of using plastic crates and pallets to move things around.
And it just so happens that if you add a couple of our stickers on there — which you can do, like almost instantly — suddenly you’ve got a smart crate or a smart pallet, and that then allows you to start to, if you look at perishable products, extend the shelf. So, if I can put a day of shelf life on fruits, on vegetables, on meat, it means I’m throwing away a lot less stuff.
So that’s great for everything. It’s great for the environment, there’s less putrefying stuff that’s emitting carbon. It means that there’s less write-offs. It also means the quality of the produce in the supermarket is a lot better. And, you know, if you find a place where you can get great-tasting fruit and vegetables, it’s kind of like an anchor product. It’s a bit like putting the milk at the back of the store as a way of getting you in the store. If you can find fresher fruit and vegetables, you’ll switch. Our surveys say that you will switch to that market.
And so, it helps with customer acquisition and increasing market share. So almost everything is helped by extending shelf life. It reduces costs. It reduces overhead. It can actually reduce manpower. It reduces your carbon footprint. And it increases profit. You’ve got a better product and you’re getting more people coming through the doors. So, we’re focusing on putting tags on plastic crates, and that doesn’t mean to say we’re not doing the other things, but it’s just kind of our priority.
So yeah, we’re still working with the pharmaceutical companies on tags, on vaccine vials; we’re still working with the apparel companies, but it’s just so easy to put the stickers on plastic crates, why not do it?
John Koetsier: Mm-hmm, and huge return, right? Huge benefit. I think I saw some data from you and I actually interviewed somebody on this, I believe about a year ago — as much of a third of the food that’s farmed, created, produced globally is wasted. And that’s obviously a huge waste in and of itself, but every resource that went into farming that food is also wasted, and so you’re just redoubling the waste and the environmental damage that’s being caused there. So that sounds very, very interesting. Well, Steve, great to chat. Great to connect again. Good to learn what you’re doing with the Pixel … and thanks for taking the time.
Steve Statler: They were great questions. Really enjoyed talking with you, John. Thanks for your interest.
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