Startups aiming to tap into the ubiquity of smartphones and extend their reach with additional hardware add-ons (plus an app) are winking rapidly into existence, as the disruptive vanguard for the long-imagined Internet of Things. Connected objects are just smarter with an app on hand to tap into the data. The latest entrant to this nascent space, Tile, has been incubated out of Silicon Valley mobile accelerator Tandem Capital, with $200,000 in funding, and has just kicked off a crowdfunding campaign on Selfstarter to raise $20,000 to fund initial production of its connected gizmo.
So what is its connected gizmo? Its Tiles are bluetooth low energy tags designed for attaching to valuable items so that these real-world objects — wallets, bikes, suitcases etc — can be traced if they go missing. “We’ve created a super, super inexpensive device that doesn’t need recharging, that gives GPS-like functionality,” explain Tile co-founders Nick Evans and Mike Farley.
These Tiles are used in conjunction with the Tile app, which allows the user to do things like ring a particular Tile to figure out where they put their keys down, say, or view a map of the last known location the Tile they fixed to their bike was at. Tile’s app also lets users turn on a range view when they are within 100-150 feet of a Tile, so they can try to retrace their steps and find where they dropped their item.
Tile’s creators are hoping to get enough people using its Tiles that the usefulness increases based on a distributed network effect. Each Tile app is capable of picking up the location of any Tile, regardless of its owner. So when a Tile user marks one of their tagged items as lost, the whole network is alerted to be on the hunt for it. Should another Tile user then pass within range of the item their smartphone will record its location and send a notification to the owner of that Tile — without that other Tile user being party to any of this background communication.
Effectively, it’s a crowdsourced scavenger hunt, where players are intentionally kept in the dark about the specific role they are playing so that it’s only the person who’s stuff it actually is who gets sent the info to retrieve it.
It’s a nice idea but one which does require a high density of Tile users to create the network needed for it to work. Evans and Farley stress that initially they won’t be playing up this side of Tile, but rather flagging up functionality that doesn’t require a wide network of users to fly — such as the range finder view and ring a tile features that allow Tile users to figure out where exactly in their house their misplaced keys have gotten to.
Targeting its rollout to particular cities, and perhaps also going after specific communities such as college campuses, is another strategy it’s looking at to ensure it builds out its user-base in a way that enhance the overall usefulness of the service to those users, in the shortest possible time frame.
“Where you lose your items is frequently where your friends and your family also go — so in the house, in the office, at restaurants where you typically go to and what not — so as those people around you join the Tile network your little world is going to get populated, so the most important people that join the network are your friends and family. And that is going to be so beneficial that we see it spreading through word of mouth,” adds Farley.
Each matchbook-sized Tile will cost $25 so it’s not exactly inexpensive enough at this point to encourage people to tag all of their important things. And being a still relatively sizeable slice of hardware, it’s not a very elegant thing to stick on personal mobile electrics like smartphones and laptops. Asked whether Tile might look at creating virtual Tiles for digital items that already contain the sensors required to power its Tiles, so for instance a virtual Tile could be added to a smartphone without the need to attach a physical Tile at all, the co-founders said it is something they are looking at, down the line. Initially though they intend to focus on hardware Tiles.
Each hardware Tile is designed to last one year, with the idea being that users don’t have to worry about replacing its batteries. After around 11 months of use, Tile owners will be sent a notification to return their Tile to the company for recycling. They’ll need to pay to purchase a replacement though. This ongoing cost is where Tile sees its initial business model — making a small margin on each Tile — but the co-founders have other ideas in the pot, including the possibility of licensing their technology to other companies. For instance, high end suitcase makers could incorporate their tag tech directly into bags, so suitcase buyers also get the tracking system as part of the whole package.