Geoff Rhoads, co-founder of ZuluTime, a company developing location-based services for wireless networks, is a prolific inventor. The amateur astronomer and astrophysicist has over 300 patents to his name, ranging from digital watermarking (his patents are currently used in currencies around the world to prevent counterfeiting) to 30-meter-tall deep space telescopes.
Back in 1995, Rhoads founded Digimarc, a company that provides solutions for media identification and management, counterfeit and piracy deterrence, and digital commerce, after becoming frustrated with the vulnerability of his digital photos of deep space imaging — even in spite of copyrights. Under his guidance, Digimarc developed some 600 patents, and was named by The Patent Board as one of the top 50 most prolific patent producers in information technology, and sold the majority of its patents to Intellectual Ventures in 2010 for over $40 million.
In late 2006, Rhoads co-founded ZuluTime, to apply work he was doing at the time in communication synchronization between satellites to terrestrial, wireless networks. Since then, the startup has focused on developing position, navigation and timing technologies (in other words, geolocation) for indoor wireless networks.
The patent ZuluTime announced today is part of a suite of patents currently awaiting approval (Rhoads tells me he expects an eventual number in the high two-digit range) that will allow companies using a ZuluTime software-enabled wireless network to locate and position smartphones (and other networked devices) with a high degree of accuracy, particularly in environments subject to interference and distortion.
The patent, also known as “US Patent #7,876,266″, or “Harmonic Block Technique for Computing Space-Time Solutions for Communication Networks”, sounds like something out of Nikola Tesla’s notebook — and repeating the title out loud may give you a minor aneurysm. But, in lay-speak, the technology ZuluTime has developed (and is developing) is a natural extension of GPS and geolocation technology. Your GPS-enabled phone may be able to guide you, say, to a store’s location, but once you are inside, you are as good as invisible. So, the startup has created a software solution that replaces GPS for indoor navigation, by making indoor wireless networks location-aware.
While ZuluTime has been developing this technology for use in a range of different fields (it has been working in conjunction with the military to refine and test more accurate guidance, location and timing technologies), the primary commercial application of this technology currently lies in retail.
Across the board, retailers are always looking for ways to get to know their customers, what they’re looking for, how they’re making product decisions, what they’re buying, etc., and they spend a lot of money collecting data and tracking customer behavior. Traditionally, data and analytics on customer behavior has been relegated to the realm of point-of-sale and what happens post-sale.
So, the ability to locate a customer in realtime on their smartphones (the one thing we take with us when we go shopping, besides our wallets) is the holy grail of tracking customer behavior. ZuluTime’s solution might allow retailers to offer their customers with offers or discounts for a specific item, presumably while they are standing directly in front of it.
And for customers, being tapped into a location aware wireless network during a shopping run will allow you to be guided to the product you’re looking for, alert your phone when you’re close to a product you have stored in your shopping list (or are close to products similar to those in your list), and view a map of the store with the locations of the products in your shopping list identified on the map.
But how does this nifty, futuristic technology work? Generally speaking, GPS location can only place your location within about 100 meters, as it requires a relatively direct line of sight to multiple satellites. (It’s coming from space, okay? Give it a break.) Other location-aware technologies, like assisted GPS, RFID, and sonic technologies are more accurate in positioning than your standard GPS, but still have margins of error of over 3 meters.
ZuluTime’s LiveFind is software that integrates with a retailer’s wifi network, for example. Using small, low-cost wifi nodes placed throughout the store (one per 3,000 square feet), ZuluTime locates your position in the store within 3 meters.
Rhoads tells me that, essentially, ZuluTime’s solution addresses the rudimentary data gathering and data sharing components in order to weave location capabilities directly into the fabric of wireless network. It listens to the normal chatter of devices and phones on a network and generates a unique ‘network time’ from each clock within shoppers’ phones. The software’s algorithms are then able to triangulate the positioning of each phone within the store more accurately. (For more on the technology, see the video below.)
ZuluTime is also compatible with most wireless networks, including Wi-Fi, cellular, Bluetooth, enhanced GPS, wireless sensor networks, ZigBee and Near Field Communications. And the data being collected can be processed in-store, on a location based router, in a data center, in the cloud, or as a SaaS solution, whichever integrates best with the retailer’s current setup.
And what’s more, there is no embedded ZuluTime technology on your phone, although Rhoads and CEO Tyler McKinley told me that they do plan on working in conjunction with retailers to help them develop smartphone applications that take advantage of this technology.
Of course, accurate tracking and location from wireless network chatter is sure to raise eyebrows for those concerned with maintaining a few iotas of privacy. However, I was assured by both Rhoads and McKinley that ZuluTime is working with its retail partners to ensure that privacy and security are top priorities. And that retail apps provide consumers with the ability to opt out of in-store tracking.
“We’re really paying attention to this space, and we want to be good citizens”, McKinley said. “People implicitly want privacy, and opt in capabilities, and permissions field, and we want to be the leader in built-in capabilities that offer opt in layers — exactly as people want them”.
Up to this point, ZuluTime has been primarily incubated by its sister company, Venture Ad Astra, as well as by private investment from angels and institutional investors. The startup is currently aggressively seeking its next round of investment to enable it to build further partnerships and assist in scaling and disseminating ZuluTime’s technologies across industries.
ZuluTime will be rolling out publicly in retail environments in the fall, but the co-founders told me that they see a wide range of industrial applications for the startup’s technology, and have already begun partnering with mobile search companies, smartphone OS providers and OEMs, as well as international communications companies. Several major airports have also been part of ZuluTime’s product testing, and the co-founders believe that ZuluTime will be applicable to any communication device, seeing big future potential as part of location-based systems in vehicles.
Certainly, it seems that it’s only a matter of time before our devices, cars, wallets, and beyond can pinpoint our locations within feet; the rise in startups and businesses that leverage location-based services show that this is no passing trend.
Shopkick, which is attempting to innovate in the so-called “social loyalty” space in consumer geolocation by doing things like pinging shoppers on their smartphones when they get to a “deal area”, could be a potential competitor for ZuluTime. Yet, unlike Zulu, Shopkick is eschewing both GPS and Wifi by offering a custom hardware-plus-app solution installed in select stores.
Both are interesting takes on location-based services, and the true holy grail may exist in the middle ground, though if ZuluTime can “fix” geolocation by making actual wifi networks more intelligent, they may have a leg up on app makers. Either way, I can’t wait to see where both startups go from here.
“Our kids will be looking at us 5 years from now in disbelief when we say there was a time when wireless devices didn’t always just know exaclty where they were all the time”, Rhoads told me. “It will be a no-brainer in just a few short years”.
That prospect is a little unnerving to say the least, but my hunch is the inventor has more than a little justification for that supposition. Minority Report, here we come.