Silicon Labs recently had the chance to talk with sleep-enthusiast Eli Lazar, co-founder of Snooz, a start-up company that created a white noise sleep machine that strives to turn people’s bedrooms into a sleep haven. A Kickstarter and angel-funded innovation that has only been on the market since April, Eli gave us a behind the scenes glimpse of how the product came about and how he and his partner successfully brought the Snooz machine to market.
How did you come up with the idea?
I used a fan to sleep in college and would pack a fan in my suitcase when I traveled to ensure I got a good night’s rest. When I was in college studying mechanical engineering, I started noticing that just about everybody I knew would sleep with a fan pointed at the wall, because they wanted the sound, without the cold air blowing on them. Later on, I also found a study from the University of Michigan that showed about half of their student population used sound to help them sleep. Fans are made to drive a lot of air and do it quietly, but we realized people were trying to use them in the opposite way and extract the noise from them and have no air. So we thought maybe we should make a special fan for sleeping. We found one other company that had made a white noise machine – a real fan, but it started in 1960 and the design hadn’t changed much since. I know there are apps and electronics on the market that mimicked the sound of moving air, but they weren’t real fans.
So how did you go about to make that happen?
The first thing we did was a lot of tinkering – experiential engineering. How do you make a “shh” sound? I didn’t know. There are no books on that. So I literally ordered 10 CPU desktop computer fans. I ordered a box of CD spindles. We just started playing around with stuff. We ended up buying a cheap 3D printer and printed out a bunch of different designs. We eventually got to the point where people actually wanted to sleep with it, which took a full year of experimenting.
Then we started the painful process of fundraising. We did a Kickstarter campaign to test the market and raised a half million dollars in 49 days. We also attended angel pitch events and eventually got to an investor who had his own VC firm. He told us we were too small for the firm, but I gave him a fan prototype and his wife ended up loving it. He still told us we were still not well-suited for his firm, but he wrote us a personal check.
The next phase was production. Probably the hardest thing to figure out was the fabric, which seems like it would be the easiest thing. But there are only a niche group of people that understand fabric, and when you have a metal surface, it becomes an even smaller group.
Eventually we got to a place where we produced the first batch of 10,000 units and we shipped 7,000 on Kickstarter and the rest sold on Amazon or our website. We’re still very much trying to figure out how to bring costs down and those sorts of things. We don’t take a salary - we haven’t taken one penny since we started.
What was the most surprising thing that you have learned so far?
Everything moves slowly, it’s really true. Nobody is in a hurry except you. You go to an investor, and months will go by before you hear from them. Even now, we’ll produce something, and it’ll be 20 weeks before we see the product. It has taught me a lot about patience. But the most surprising thing is you kind of lay out how people are going to see the product, but then it’s totally different. For example, you might write out instructions for the device, but people will interpret what you say a lot differently. The other thing I learned is you have to have a thick skin. I mean, you put a lot of time into the product and you end up being very close to it, and people can be brutal. The vast majority of our reviews are very positive, but you do get some people that pick one little thing on the product they don’t like, such as the power cord, something little, and those things can really tear into you if you let it. I never thought I’d be as sensitive to customer feedback as I am.
Do you have any favorite stories from users?
We get quite a few emails from people that would really blow you away. People will say they’ve had bad nightmares their entire life, but since using Snooz, they sleep perfectly. We get a lot of people telling us they haven’t been able to sleep for long periods of time or they had to take medication to sleep and now they sleep fine.
Sleep is everything to people, if you can’t have it, you’re messed up.
Yes, and I think it’s an issue getting more attention. Last year at CES was the first time the conference included an entire section of devices devoted to sleep.
What were some of your design challenges with this product?
We had pretty tight constraints for what we wanted. We brought prototypes to the design firm and laid out our guidelines. They came up with 8 or 9 designs and we were really drawn to the fabric design because it allows sound to go through it unobstructed. We liked the idea of combining fabric and electronics.
Our original vision was the device would be a beautiful product that sits in your room and you don’t interact with it – you don’t even have to touch it. That’s why we decided to use the Bluetooth chip from Silicon Labs because it gave us the ability to program its schedule or turn on remotely.
The fabric was a real challenge. They make the fabric wraps automated, but there’s still some manual work to sew the seams. We did a lot to make sure the fabric isn’t toxic, as well.
Creating the right packaging was another challenge. One thing a design professional asked us right when we were starting was, “Why do people buy products?” And we said for functionality. And he said, “No, no, people don’t buy products for function – they buy them for the emotional connection.” So just having the right package feel, the look to the box – was important to us.
What product did you use from Silicon Labs?
Initially, we used the BLE113, but then we switched recently to the new BGM113. I was already familiar with Silicon Labs, but the decision stemmed from our connection with a design firm in Chicago. The firm highly recommended Silicon Labs products and they had a lot of experience with your company and said the technology always pretty much works – it’s really rock solid. They explained that you can always find other dirt cheap chips out there, but you’re going to have all kinds of issues.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
We have definitely encountered two crowds that we sell to. One group loves the app, loves the Bluetooth and loves everything connected. But then the other group is like, I don’t want any of that – I want it old-school simple. We keep trying to figure out the right balance, where we make things connected but not so connected that they become a nuisance to people. My impression is it’s probably going to be a fight about what things should be connected and what shouldn’t be.
One of the things about Kickstarter is we had 6,000 backers – it’s like having 6,000 bosses. People were telling us to add this and add that, but we didn’t want it to be this super connected device. I don’t think the bedroom should have a ton of connected devices – it should be a place where it’s free of that. I hope IoT’s pace doesn’t go so fast that people try to connect everything, because then people will learn to hate it. But it can be useful if it goes at the right pace, because with some things it just makes sense.
I don’t like when things get too complicated. I’d rather the whole company flop and stick to the vision that we are going to do what’s right for people, not the company. Because I know if we start adding all kinds of new features, the product might sell more, but I don’t think people will sleep better because of it and it’ll cause them more frustration. My partner and I really just want to do what will help people sleep better.
Silicon Labs recently had the opportunity to sit down with Andrea Perdomo to discuss the personal safety company she co-founded, Revolar. Perdomo, who immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia as a child, shares her personal inspiration behind the product and explains some of the design challenges she experienced launching a simple yet powerful IoT technology that alerts loved ones if the user is in danger.
Can you tell us a little bit about your company Revolar?
Revolar is a personal safety technology company. We created a small device that you clip onto your clothing, key chain, handbag, etc. The device is for those moments where you just need to connect with your loved one. The device is connected to your phone via Bluetooth. There are three different alert levels. The first is a “hey, I’m home or I’m safe” alert. Two clicks is a yellow alert, which is for when you are uncomfortable or just want someone to be with you virtually. And the third alert is for full blown emergencies. We launched our first product in 2015 and launched the new version in April of this year.
What prompted you to create the technology and the company?
My co-founder, Jackie Ros, and I were close friends before we started the company together. Jackie’s younger sister was the ultimate inspiration for Revolar. Her sister was assaulted twice by the age of 17. In both circumstances, her sister didn’t have time to reach for her phone and call for help. Jackie wanted to create a magic button that her sister could press that would let people know where she was and that she needed help. And that’s pretty much what we did. We realized nothing like this existed yet. There were products such as Life Alert and 24/7 trackers for your kids, but nothing in the middle. We had no technology background at all, but we figured out how to do it.
I’m originally from Colombia and I moved to the U.S. for safety and security reasons after my grandmother was kidnapped for eight months. She’s OK now, but if she would have had Revolar, we would have known her last whereabouts and known something was wrong. Then we could have started looking sooner. Instead, we went a whole month without knowing where she was.
What were the circumstances? Was she held for ransom?
Yes, ransom. It was back in the 90s – everybody was getting kidnapped left and right. And my Dad said, “This is it, we can’t live here anymore.” So I’ve been surrounded by the mentality of “stay safe” or “don’t talk to strangers.” Moving to the U.S., it’s definitely safer here. But at the same time, Revolar is for those moments where you just can’t predict it. We started Revolar in Denver – just the two of us – and we slowly grew our team. I went to business school and I’ve always said you don’t know how to start your own business until you do it. We eventually figured it out and found a team of advisors and investors who believed in what we were doing.
What kind of stories and feedback have you received from the users?
We have learned that our customer base is broad – we have male and female users from every age group above 13 years old. So customization of the experience is important. Not everybody is the same – a red alert for one person might be totally different for someone who has food allergies versus someone who is a runner. So we started enhancing our software. Now users can customize messages and change contacts for each alert level. We also learned that people were using Revolar just on the weekends or when they thought something would happen. So in our new version we created ways people can use the device regularly and not just when they need it. For example, the new version will beep so you can find your keys or phone. We also activated step-tracking for active users who want to use Revolar to count steps.
That’s great you’re learning how people are really using it.
Interestingly enough, people are using it for reasons that I never thought of. I kid you not, I know people are using it to let friends know what bar they’re at. Or if they go on a hike, they use it to show people what hike they went on. Or they take check-ins while they are shopping to remember where they were.
Is there a way to aggregate the data about where people of certain ages congregate or use their devices most frequently?
When we talk to police or governing bodies of cities or universities, we always get that question. They say, “You’re telling me that we will know when people are feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable?” A perfect example is if we’re getting a bunch of yellow or red alerts from a certain fraternity at a college campus. We know a lot of this information is sensitive and personal to our customers and we want to respect everyone’s privacy. But at the same time, if we can get our users to let us know why they are using Revolar, we can help people in the future.
Can you tell us about the process of building the device?
Our proof of concept was built by an engineer we contracted with in Colorado. Within three months, we had a functioning prototype. It was jankie and we had to unplug it to set off the alert. We also had to convert our phones to Androids because that was the only way to build the app. We later brought on an advisor who was both an electrical and a mechanical engineer. In two weeks, he built the prototype we ended up using in the first version of our product. We then found an industrial designer to contract for us and that part was fun – making sure the design was pretty. Once we started the manufacturing process, our contract manufacturer brought on the CTO and started putting all of the pieces together.
Was the design of the product a challenge since it hadn’t been done before? Or was it a process smooth?
Oh, no. It was really hard. I remember every engineer I talked to said “Oh, that’s easy, we can do that.” But then there was always something. One of the challenges was size. The battery life was another challenge. And the button, making sure the button was concave enough to remove the risk of false alerts. And features – there were so many features we wanted, but we couldn’t compromise the size or battery life. Initially, we thought it would be a great idea to have four buttons. Then we learned how much it would cost and how much it would drain the battery. Most of the Bluetooth chips that existed at the time powered cell phones or sent messages with high-bandwidth, and we didn’t need all of that. We ended up going with Bluetooth Low Energy because everything else would have taken longer to make. It took us over a year to have the final product.
What specific Silicon Labs products are in the device?
The Wireless Blue Gecko SoC. The product helped us achieve a longer battery life and create our small form factor.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
I think we’re going to start seeing people consolidate IoT. Especially as we hear people say they don’t want to charge another thing – they want devices to do multiple things. Most people have no idea what IoT means – I’d say 80 percent of the world or more. I still run across people who don’t know what Bluetooth is – or what a wearable is. So although technology is moving fast, there is still a big gap in education. I also think we’ll see wearables and IoT in places that you would never imagine, such as clothing and handbags. I believe tech will become fashion. Probably not in the next 5-8 years, but in the next 20.
Intelligent transportation system provider Q-Free has been working in the transportation management market for the past 30 years. Based in Norway, the global company plans to roll out a new parking IoT product this fall. According to an INRIX study published in USA Today, American drivers spend 17 hours a year searching for parking spots and a whopping $20 billion annually in garage fees, parking tickets, and fuel burned while searching for a spot. Silicon Labs recently had the chance to sit down with Q-Free Project Manager, Brage Blekken, to hear more about the new sensor parking product.
So for people not familiar with Q-Free, can you give us a brief overview of the company?
Q-Free delivers a broad portfolio of intelligent transportation systems for the global market. Our systems include solutions for electronic road tolling (DSRC systems), vehicle counters and classifiers, traffic control and surveillance technologies, and parking management solutions. Our product installations can be found in more than 20 countries around the world.
How did the company get started?
Our company started in the eighties after building electronic toll collection technologies in Norway. Since then, we have greatly expanded our product offering to include numerous intelligent transportation technologies, with recent expansions into Europe, Asia, South America, and we are now entering North America. We’ve built some of the largest nationwide road tolling systems found in the world today.
Can you tell us a little bit about your parking sensor technology?
We actually used technology from our toll road technology products and applied it to our parking sensors. Over the past five years, we’ve been offering indoor parking technology, which are systems you find in indoor parking lots, such as shopping malls. These systems hang over the parking space to detect, track, and monitor parked cars.
Now what is the IoT parking technology you are planning to launch later this year? How does it work?
Our new ParQSense Smart Parking Sensor helps drivers find parking spots on the street level by using wireless technology. Most people don’t know this, but typically 20 percent of the traffic on the roads in an urban area is generated from people looking for parking spots. So our product is essentially removing excess traffic off the roads, which is Q-Free’s primary mission as a company – remove the Q’s (vehicle flow), or the excess traffic flow on the road.
Our Smart Sensor uses dual technology (radar and magnetic field) to sense with 99% accuracy whether a vehicle is present in a parking space. Space availability sensor data is then transmitted to centralized base stations using long range communication. The Q-Free HUB, the cloud IoT backend service can send that information to a variety of outputs, such as Variable Message Signs located near the parking site, and it can also go straight to end-users through websites or mobile phone applications. The ParQSense Smart Sensor product line will be commercially launched at the 25th ITS World Congress in Copenhagen September 17-21, 2018. For our next development, we are working on a full IoT Smart Sensor version which will use existing 4G telecommunication networks to transmit data directly to the Q-Free HUB. We’re planning to commercially launch a dual standard IoT Smart Sensor (LTE Cat M1 and NB-IoT) in the second half of 2019.
Is there a product like this on the market right now already?
The parking sensors currently out there today have accuracy limitations, so they are not producing correct occupancy data which can negatively impact the parking experience. Our dual sensing technology ParQSense Smart Sensor has the highest industry accuracy producing the most reliable parking data, which can be used to analyze trends and make future predations to improve overall traffic. We also have a rock solid dual communication interface, which is a real edge for us because it gives sensors the ability to communicate over long distances to our proprietary centralized base stations. The next development of a full IoT Smart Sensor in 2019, using existing telecommunication infrastructure, will be a huge step in the right direction towards realizing next generation Smarter City connectivity.
What kind of design challenges did you have when creating the product?
The combination of the high accuracy components with extreme low power consumption was our primary challenge when building this product. It also had to be rugged and robust to fit into any environment.
The sensor life expectancy is 10+ years on average. This means we cannot afford to use more than a few microamperes on average while maintaining the high performance data link and intensive signal processing required to operate the radar circuits.
Different global IoT Standards have proven a challenge, that is why we postponed the full IoT Smart Sensor launch until 2019, to satisfy the LTE Cat M1 and NB-IoT markets with a dual standard Smart Sensor.
Can you tell us why you picked Silicon Labs as the supplier?
The main challenges for us in building this product were related to extreme low power consumption. Silicon Labs is one of the top players in the world for low power electronics, and also wireless communications components. That’s the main reason we selected Silicon Labs, you have the top solutions for our specific design challenges that help us design the right product for the market.
Where do you see IoT in the next 5-8 years?
Look at Internet access on cell phones – everyone has it now, though that was not the case 5 or 10 years ago. I think IoT will definitely go the same way as mobile phones - everything in our lives will all be connected to the Internet. And people will not be thinking about the technology behind it, they will just expect it to be there.
That means that we as solution providers need to converge towards standards for wireless IoT connectivity, which ensures easy interoperability between devices and online services. My bet is that the new low power IoT standards, NB-IoT and LTE Cat M1, which right now are being released into existing 4G and the upcoming 5G networks, will be one of the standardized ways to connect our devices to the Internet.
Silicon Labs had the opportunity to sit down recently with our customer Jerry Wilmink, CEO and Founder of WiseWear. With a Ph.D. in optical-sensing and biomedical engineering, Wilmink built a company that creates connected IoT devices that can predict, prevent and alert users in times of potential danger.
Can you tell me about where the idea for the WiseWear application came from?
In 2010, I lost my grandfather shortly after he fell in his home and never recovered from the fall. After the loss, I asked the CTO of the Air Force if I could get a bunch of smart people to come to my house in San Antonio and build a product that could predict and prevent this from happening in the future. We built a bio-sensing hearing aid that could detect and alert a senior when they were dehydrated or when their gate or balance was off. With this prototype in hand, I completed an executive MBA at the University of Texas and put together a business plan. After winning several competitions with the prototype, I decided to build a business. So I cleaned out my retirement account and started WiseWear in 2013.
We’re now making a whole family of connected safety and security devices that keep everyone in your family safe and secure. We launched our first consumer product last year at CES where we actually fused advanced-antenna technology and sensors for safety and security into a jewelry offering. We’re now making a standalone connected device using low-power and a wide access network with extended battery life that does not require a cellular connection for children’s health & safety.
So you were able to marry your personal interests with your background. Tell me about some of your design challenges. What were some of the hurdles you had to make? Especially around the design to create something that people want to wear.
We are primarily technologists with an eye for design, but we ended up partnering with Iris Apfel, former interior designer for the White House and a bunch of New York-based jewelry executives. We had them fly down to San Antonio in the initial product design meeting, given we didn’t know what jewelry should look like. They flew down and it was like the Devil Wears Prada visits the nerds. We sat at the table and fused together these two worlds of fashion and engineering. And we had a tug of war about what’s possible and what’s not possible in terms of form factors. The thing about connected technology design is the product is never done – you’re always updating firmware and apps. But in fashion, once the product is made, it’s done.
The challenges of this process were significant because this was the first kind of fused jewelry with sensors and electronics. Most wearables are made of plastics or elastomers or use a watch screen to transmit the signals through. Our patented technology allowed us to transmit the Bluetooth signals right through the metal material.
Was there any distortion or does that impact the signal at all?
Yes, but we have two patents to address this problem. For Bluetooth, we’re actually seeing the range from the bracelet to the phone is actually further than the phone to the bracelet, so the antenna works quite well, including distances of 50-70 feet. Manufacturing is a whole different challenge because we had to manufacture the jewelry piece with extensive orders for jewelry cuts. The cuts had to be precise enough that we could fuse the sensors and electronics into the jewelry piece while keeping quality and high fidelity signals.
I imagine size was an issue when getting the right components, such as sensors and chips?
Yes, we developed custom designs to get the right chips and components. We actually have one of the smallest boards inside any wearable. We couldn’t use anything that was off the shelf in terms of a complete board, so we had to design our custom builds with the antenna inside.
Tell me about how Silicon Labs got involved? What was it about our products that stood out over the competition?
You guys make the best components. Right now we’re using the Wonder Gecko 32-bit MCU and in some of our products going forward we’re going to be using even more of your components. We’ve always loved working with Silicon Labs and your components are just always the best that we come across in the industry. Given that we make a whole array and family of different types of products and services, Silicon Labs always seems to have some of the best in terms of quality and price.
Where do you see connectivity and IoT heading in the next 5 years?
Technology continues to gets closer to the body as we move from desktops, to laptops, to wearables, to smart apparel, to implantables - technology is invading us. The connectivity part is really the hot button item because the natural take on a wearable device is to just throw a CDMA or GSM chip in anything and connect it to the Internet. The reality is that’s like putting a gaming laptop on your wrist – it’s not a smart decision in terms of battery life or the utility of that connected product. So we’re starting to use low-power, wide access networks and make products that can connect at a very low cost.
Also, I’m pretty bullish on the development of smart apparel products for physiological monitoring and safety and security. I think that’s going to the next very important move before we get to implantables.
The technology design transitions we are seeing today can be likened to the transition of matter as it moves from a solid to a liquid to a gas. The initial smart phone and wearables were clunky looking, sort of like an ice cube. And now they’re starting to turn into a liquid and follow form factors that are more ascetically appealing and wearable. Then it turns into a gas and it’s ubiquitous, right?
We had a wonderful opportunity to speak with Brad Zdroik, Founder of Deep Freeze Fishing. A leader in the emerging IoT development occurring in the outdoor sports market, Deep Freeze Fishing helps fishermen and women avoid the cold while ice fishing by providing an alert system for their lines, freeing them to monitor catches from afar.
So for people not acquainted with Deep Freeze Fishing, tell us about yourself. What’s the elevator pitch explanation of what you do?
We manufacture and sell ice fishing equipment. We’re based in central Wisconsin, and we sell products throughout the northern third of the U.S. and up into Canada as well. We started off with an ice skimmer that clears slush out of your ice augur hole in one scoop, and that’s evolved into the current One Shot Skimmer Pro Edition. But our connected BlueTipz product is now our most popular offering.
How does BlueTipz work exactly? What’s going on under the hood?
BlueTipz is a tip-up alert for ice anglers. Instead of having to stare at your flag all the time waiting and waiting for the fish to bite, you can instead attach our BlueTipz transmitter on the flag. When the tip-up receives a strike and the flag goes up, a sensor in our device pings your phone, freeing you to be inside your fishing shack keeping warm for longer stretches of time until right when you need to actually take care of your line.
BlueTipz also allows you to be much more flexible during night fishing. Not only do we have a light on the tip-up that lights up, but you can also name individual tip-ups within the app so you know exactly which one has gotten a strike; it definitely saves you some stumbling around in the cold and dark. That’s a great benefit especially in the states that allow you have up to 10–15 lines going at once.
And what’s the story of how you arrived at a solution for ice fishing diehards? It’s definitely a unique niche. How did Deep Freeze Fishing even come about?
I actually went to school for electrical engineering and did my corporate cubicle stint and was just feeling restless. I moved back home to central Wisconsin kind of searching for what to do. I always loved the sport of ice fishing, and just fiddling around with my Dad, we created the One Shot Skimmer product that represents Deep Freeze’s beginning, though certainly not very techy of course.
Around the same time, smartphone apps were beginning to ramp up, and there were a couple other products beginning to hit the market that provided tip-up alerts. But my brother Ryan and I weren’t crazy about any of them and thought they could work much, much better. So we decided to build our own, and that is how BlueTipz was born.
How would you say your solution has evolved since 2012 when you started out, as well as your design challenges over time?
The core solution has actually remained the same since we started. It’s become more of a matter of putting more high-quality, sophisticated hardware pieces inside as technology has gotten better since we started out in 2012. That has let us extend battery life over time and continue to be able to keep working in temperatures as low as -20° to -30° F. Being able to withstand the brutal open cold is hands-down what’s always driving us. If a component can’t take the cold, we can’t use it.
We also have about a 600-foot range from BlueTipz to your phone, and that’s grown from our original capabilities. We’ve had to make sure the signal can make it through a typical fishing shack and the human body, so we’ve definitely invested in boosting the signal itself and always make sure the Bluetooth module can do its job.
What Silicon Labs’ product are you using in BlueTipz? And why did you select it?
We started out with the Bluegiga BLE112 and have actually transitioned over to the Bluegiga BLE121LR to get the extended signal range. It’s a good value and it can withstand the extreme cold. We couldn’t be happier with it.
What do see in the future for Deep Freeze Fishing?
Ice fishing is obviously a niche market within fishing; we hope to develop some applications for open-water fishing as that is obviously a substantially larger market. We feel the whole space is lacking in terms of IoT development.
In closing, we always ask our IoT Heroes one Bonus Question: Where do you see the collective IoT heading in the next 5–8 years in your opinion?
As I said, we think even just regular fishing is vastly lacking in connected development that could really be meaningful and helpful for end-users. The industry is just behind all the amazing things we see on the news. I think we are really going to witness a blossoming of applications across the board in the coming years for outdoor sports users, and that’s exciting.
In recent years, the growing wave of Internet of Things (IoT) applications has spread to many highly specialized market segments, including industrial automation, intelligent retail, intelligent logistics, and intelligent transportation, which are all blue ocean markets with high expectations. However, the solutions needed for these various segments have something in common: they all require a very stable and secure network architecture with multiple nodes and low power consumption.
To overcome this complex technical challenge, M2COMM, a leading provider of low power consumption IoT communication technologies, has developed its own proprietary protocol, called Platanus. Boasting a battery life of 5-10 years, Platanus provides a reliable network physical layer solution for intelligent retail and logistics systems by taking advantage of outstanding RF sensitivity and linearity technologies and ultra-low power consumption EZRadio PRO series Sub-GHz RF transceivers from Silicon Labs. This protocol is poised to greatly accelerate the commercialization of IoT technologies.
We were given an opportunity recently to interview Dr. Derrick Wei, CEO of M2COMM. We asked for his observations on specialized IoT applications and overall technological developments to help us see IoT business opportunities from another angle.
Please tell us about your experience and unique perspective regarding the IoT market and product design.
IoT is an application concept involving many fields, with high vertical integration and highly compatible software and hardware. People started discussing IoT as early as 2008, but the IoT market is still in its infancy. Compared to IoT applications in consumer electronics, such as wearable devices and B2C business models, I think it is easy to see the commercial value of specialized IoT market segments, including logistics, retail, industrial and B2B applications, and they are very likely to take off rapidly.
The key problem in IoT applications is the stability and reliability of the network physical layer, which is even more important for system integrators and service vendors in certain market segments. M2COMM, ever since its initial involvement in the IoT market, has targeted the intelligent retail and logistics segments, which have highly anticipated business opportunities. It has specialized in overcoming various network communication protocol challenges, and developed a proprietary protocol which is highly reliable, supports massive numbers of nodes, and features low power consumption.
What sets M2COMM’s company culture apart, what makes its strategies unique in IoT markets?
M2COMM was founded in 2012. We specialize in developing unique, multifunctional WLAN and LPWAN wireless communication protocols with low power consumption. Currently, we have offices in Taiwan and France to provide products and technical support for our customers. Our mission is to use our solid technical foundation to create a highway for IoT applications so as to bring togehter our partners into a brand-new IoT era.
Just as IoT is an application concept with high vertical integration and mutually compatible software and hardware, naturally, team work and close cooperation becomes the company culture of M2COMM. Within the company, software and hardware developers must synchronize their steps, and software and hardware engineers must work closely together. Outside the company, we are eager to vertically cooperate with the value chain, from network communication protocols to wireless communication modules, end-user solutions, and cloud services, to co-build the IoT ecosystem.
M2COMM has already implemented its proprietary hive-type low power consumption communication protocol (Platanus) in the Electronic Shelf Label (ESL) system, and has developed Uplynx, a highly integrated wireless communication SoC for the Sigfox standard, which has greatly shortened the design time for manufacturers and achieved unprecedented success in the specialized intelligent retail market segment.
Tell us about the features and advantages of IoT products marketed by M2COMM and their benefits to IoT applications.
M2COMM has focused on mid-distance IoT (IoT LAN) and low power WAN (LPWAN) wireless communication technologies that both work in Sub-GHz frequency bands with or without authentication, ideal for connecting intelligent devices to the Internet. The LPWAN technology allows communication distances of several meters to 10 km, and offers the stability of a telecom network. The power consumption of IoT LAN is less than one-third that of Bluetooth Low Energy protocol, so you could say they are designed specifically for IoT use cases.
Recently, the Uplynx wireless communication chip M2COMM designed for the Sigfox standard passed Sigfox certification in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and Asia, which is not only an important milestone for worldwide application of LPWAN communication chips, but also marks the beginning of the global adoption of a single IoT design.
Uplynx is a highly integrated wireless communication chip that is specifically designed for Sigfox and its ecosystem partners and vendors, fulfilling their requirements of low cost, low power consumption, and small size. Such requirements were consequently reflected in the reference designs for certification, in which Uplynx uses a quartz oscillator instead of TCXO to allow its output power to reach 22 dBM without any extra power amplifiers. What is more, the built-in powerful 32-bit micro-control unit (MCU), 128 KB flash and 24 KB RAM in this chip, with a size of only 7×7 mm, provide ample computation capacity and application flexibility for developers. In addition, system manufacturers can produce products for different regions by designing only one PCB board when using the certified Uplynx chip, which will greatly shorten the design time and reduce problems in product management.
Building on the above efforts and product lines, M2COMM has also developed ELSA, a wireless electronic shelf labeling system with the smallest size and lowest power consumption in the world, utilizing the EZRadio PRO series Sub-GHz RF transceivers from Silicon Labs. Not only can this product provide a battery life of over 50 years, but it also fulfills the requirements of networks with large numbers of nodes. We believe that it will be very popular in the retail and logistics segments for its small size makes it easy to install and maintain.
Using its hive-type communication protocol Platanus, M2COMM built the ELSA wireless electronic labeling system in 2014. It shows excellent performance in data transmission and ultra-low power consumption. The brand-new ELSA also performs better in terms of software and hardware compatibility, system stability, and multi-node management, thereby allowing corner retail shops to enjoy the convenience and efficiency of the Retail 4.0 era.
Among the new ELSA series of products, the ELSA integrated access point (iAP) is the world's smallest electronic labeling AP, with dimensions of 100 x 68 x 25 mm. The combination of a retail store’s intranet and an ELSA router (iRT) is all that is needed to manage all data transmissions effectively within 30,000 square meters, an area equal to six soccer fields, without needing to go through the store’s computer or other servers. The compact iAP provides an SD card slot on the side for backing up of the store's data, and a flexible magnet on the back for fast and easy installation.
Both iAP and iRT can operate in WiFi-only environments, and include backup batteries to maintain stable data transmission during power outages. However, the function of intelligent electronic labeling should not be limited to showing prices on demand or updating labels. ELSA also provides cloud applications to let business owners easily manage and monitor all their installed electronic labels, making retail business operation more immediate and efficient.
What Silicon Labs solutions are you using now? What specific functional advantages have they provided for your products?
We have adopted the EZRadioPRO series Si4460 and Si4464 RF transceivers from Silicon Labs. They operate in Sub-GHz bands of 119–1,050 MHz, performing excellently across many RF performance indicators, such as linearity and sensitivity.
Please share your views on the future of IoT and the future focus of M2COMM
We think the focus of IoT will be on business and industrial applications in the near future, such as intelligent logistics and intelligent retail and industrial automation. More and more B2B business models will surface in the IoT market. Today, the development of logistics in Mainland China is sophisticated. The next stage will be intelligent logistics applications for intelligent management and wireless ESL tracking, which will create another huge wave of business opportunities.
In terms of intelligent retail, ESL will play a key role in the Retail 4.0 revolution. ESL will not only allow store owners to update product prices instantly upon stock quantities and bidding status, but also significantly reduce human errors in updating prices. Store employees, therefore, can serve the customer more attentively to increase customer satisfaction.
For the convenience of more retail store owners, M2COMM’s ESL system can be integrated with all POS systems in the market. In addition, M2COMM's ESL system promises an over 5 years service life with just an ordinary button battery, and is a very sustainable and environment friendly solution. We are dedicated to providing the most excellent IoT solutions to our customers, enabling our clients and consumers to enjoy better retail environments and services.
In the next phase, we plan to expand the application of our proprietary wireless communication protocols, IoT SoC and modules, and wireless Electronic Shelf Label system into the new filed, the factory automation market.
We recently took the opportunity to chat with Greg Tracy, co-founder and CTO of Propeller Health. A player in the healthcare space from Wisconsin, Propeller Health has been focused on leveraging cutting-edge technology to help asthma and COPD patients in a never-before-seen way.
Tell us about your core offering
Propeller is the leading digital platform to help people better manage respiratory conditions through sensors, mobile interfaces, and other services. The main conditions being asthma and COPD. Ultimately, we’re helping reduce the cost of care while delivering better quality of life for patients because we’re helping them remember when to take their medications and learn what their triggers are.
How did you arrive at helping people with these particular conditions? Healthcare is obviously a vast space, and we’d love to know how you landed where you did.
My cofounder and the CEO of the business today is David Van Sickle. David is an asthma epidemiologist; he’s been studying asthma his whole career. David was always puzzled by the lack of data he faced. And just organically during a medical fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, he started doing research on instrumenting inhaled medications and how that could become the method for data collection.
In 2010, David and I met through the third cofounder, Mark Gehring, and began exploring commercializing the work David started on campus. That was the birth of Propeller Health. That was the core: instrumenting inhaled medications to provide more insight back to patients so that they could understand the triggers that were causing some of their worst symptoms.
And by triggers, you mean helping patients identify maybe the times of day, or maybe even the locations or conditions where distress could be activated?
Exactly. What people should know is that there are very effective drugs on the market for treating both asthma and COPD. But what has been missing is more insight into the moments when people begin to be symptomatic. Our mission is to close the gap between those moments and effective treatment, to provide the insight the patient needs right when they need it.
We want to understand the environmental triggers, even specific locations that might be impacting your symptoms. The times of day, days of the week, that sort of thing. There’s some more outward-looking forecasting work as well. Taking into account all your prior history, our solution also monitors the forecast for air quality, pollen, and other weather conditions. Basically we want to give people a personalized forecast for the next week.
So tell us how does your solution work exactly. What’s going on under the hood?
Sure. It’s very straightforward. Users just attach our device directly to their inhaler after sign-up, and we take it from here. We describe ourselves as a “hardware-enabled software company.” Most of the real magic of the system are the analytics and insights that we can find and put together, based on your data and all of the complementary data that’s based on location, environmental factors, and other sensors.
But the secret sauce of all of that are the sensors themselves for several reasons. Mainly because if you can't collect that data passively, it’s really hard to get the analytics engine to work effectively. I think a lot of people peg us as a sensor company. We really consider ourselves a software company that is enabled by this really great, small, low-power piece of hardware that makes it easy for data collection.
Having the piece of electronics on the medication creates so many new opportunities. For example, when we instrument meds that users are supposed to take every day, we can use audible reminders on that device to help them remember when to take them. So we’ll push your personal schedule when you’re supposed to take your meds, so 9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. And that schedule will persist on the sensor and give you a little chime when it's time to take your meds, if you haven't taken them already. Using accelerometers on the device, we can start to measure whether or not the medication is being used correctly, if it’s in the right orientation when the medication is dispensed. You can put microphones on it to listen for breath sounds and understand whether or not they have adequately inhaled the medication correctly. So what started out as this nice, clever data collection mechanism has evolved into a service that can provide feedback directly to the user in other ways.
How would you say your solution has evolved since 2010 when you started out?
Well, a big change is that we’ve tackled more in respiratory. We started off with only asthma, and in 2014 we expanded the platform to also include COPD. It’s a very different population to serve, since it’s a chronic condition that’s much harder to treat and the patient pool is typically the elderly.
Broadly speaking though, I would say our evolution mirrors most startups, where you start to understand the types of features that patients are interested in, and the types of insights that people are interested in, and you’re evolving constantly. Over time we’ve become a much more passive solution. We don’t expect patients to report in a lot or be bothered unnecessarily. We try to limit outreach to those moments when there’s something actionable or there’s an important new insight. We don’t want to constantly remind them they’re having to maintain a chronic condition. We want to help in a meaningful, nonintrusive way that simplifies their lives and improves their overall quality of life.
What design challenges have you faced during this evolution?
In addition to wanting to make the solution very passive for consumers, three other things come to mind. We wanted to make sure we had a long battery life. Early on, we were all happy because we got a 30-day charge, but then we saw people were not in the habit of charging things every 30 days. Low energy technology made that problem pretty much go away.
Secondly, early on we struggled with simple stuff like attachment. There are lots of different delivery devices, and how do you attach to all of them and make that simple? We've had a lot of innovation on the enclosure just with simple attachment systems. Lastly, pairing has always been difficult, especially in the iOS ecosystem. So we actually took a path of eliminating pairing from our sensors, and instead rely on a whitelisting technique inside of our apps.
Are you working directly with pharmaceutical companies?
We do. The respiratory pharma companies recognize Propeller Health as a complimentary digital solution working alongside the drugs, ultimately rendering them even more effective by helping optimize when people take them. I think they appreciate we’ve created an easy system that helps patients remember to take their general daily dose and then provides insights for when they’re using their reliever medications.
What Silicon Labs’ product are you using at Propeller? And why did you select it?
A big, ongoing design factor for us is overall cost of goods. That’s because we sell into a market that’s very price sensitive. Of course, you also want any part you use to do the job right.
We felt the Blue Gecko BGM121 Bluetooth Smart SiP module was the perfect marriage of good value and functionality. The beauty of it for us is that it encapsulated a microprocessor along with all of the BLE functionality. So we could drop a part, reducing the overall footprint. We also decided to use Silicon Labs again with another device coming out this fall as well. In that case, it’s letting us actually go from two boards down to one and really simplify design again.
Where do you see the collective IoT heading in the next 5–8 years in your opinion?
What comes to mind is actually what I’m hopeful for. I’m hopeful that the world takes advantage of IoT in a very passive way. And what I mean by that is, using it to automate more and just stay out in front of things, rather than giving all of us some new piece of technology or a new app to tinker with just because we can. So in a nutshell, helpful and unobtrusive. Not just more technology for technology’s sake.
We recently spoke with CEO Marina Nikeschina of e-Senses and Pim van der Meer, project lead development at HYB, a fresh team on the IoT scene that just celebrated its first birthday. e-Senses is focused on health and wellness and is determined to help people achieve the vitamin D levels they need in a way that’s never been done before - with a cutting-edge ring.
For folks just now hearing about you, tell us about your business; how did you get started?
Well, our original inspiration was actually due to a friend of the founders who had concerns about elderly patients. Essentially, in his research he realized that light had a profound effect on happiness and quality of life in the individuals he saw. Seniors who get outside are eating better, sleeping better, virtually everything better than people who stay inside. Older patients who are aren’t going outside, they get depressed, they get sick.
So he asked if it was possible to make something that you can put on people to see how much light they receive. Troubleshooting this idea, we realized that the only two parts of our body typically not completely covered in clothes as the seasons come and go are our face and hands. So we decided to make a ring, because a ring is one accessory that’s unisex and just not really intrusive for people to adopt. That’s how our Helios Smart Ring was born, and it’s the first vitamin D tracker in the world.
Starting out, we decided to look at a lot of medical studies about light, vitamin D, and sunlight. And we were surprised to learn about the many advantages you can get for free from the sunlight. So we ultimately decided to make a very serious product, not just a small, simple tool to measure basic light exposure, but a wearable device for everyone.
And we designed a corresponding app that helps breathe life into the data the ring collects; it has three modes or “coaches.” Mode one is a “Vitamin D Coach” that shows how much vitamin D you are absorbing every day from the sun by the minute. Mode two is the “Sunlight Coach” that helps measure the strength of the sun and tells you how long you can stay outside without any danger. Then we have a “Daylight Coach” mode that calculates the minimum amount of light that you need every day and displays in percentages how far along you are for your daily goal.
Tell us about some of the challenges you faced in developing such a small device. I know you had to hit some hurdles getting this much functionality out of such a small, unobtrusive object.
I would say we faced two main challenges in development. The first challenge was how to charge the device. The first prototypes used contact points for charging, but the low pressure on the charging pins that the limited weight of the ring gives will result in bad contact due to corrosion of the contact points. So we retooled the ring to have its own charging coil inside and make the charging process exclusively wireless, eliminating that issue entirely.
Secondly, achieving a long battery life was challenging. Our initial goal was to have at least a 24-hour battery life, but our initial prototypes were only holding a four- to six-hour charge. That obviously wasn’t acceptable to us. After what could only be described as a bout of sheer obsession to solve this problem, a very talented engineer got the battery life up to two to three days of wear, which we’re really pleased with because of the ease of use that grants our users.
Well, we think this is a really amazing health application. Can you also tell us what Silicon Labs products are you using in the Helios and why?
We are using the Si1133 in the Helios Smart Ring. It was very difficult to find components for our recent circuit board because we were looking for the smallest components in the world. A ring is such a small form factor and you want durability as well. Everything we are using is the smallest, smallest, smallest. But we didn't want to compromise on quality. We were looking for sensors that can measure daylight and sunlight accurately, and that were small, light, and production-ready. We came across Silicon Labs’ solution and knew this was our winner.
In your view, what does the future of IoT look like in the next 5–8 years given your experience?
It’s obviously been amazing to witness how widespread the IoT has become now that network and power solutions have evolved to allow so many product designs actually come to life. That said, what we most hope to see is that we don’t overly automate the human experience itself. Such as with the Smart Home concept, it’s great that you can open and close a window and control a thermostat remotely—those are things that can save energy costs and add a level of convenience that is enriching for an end-user. But there is no reason to automate someone’s blankets being rolled off of them in the morning or every other small detail of every daily routine in life. We hope that the IoT’s biggest gains will be rooted in truly enriching people’s lives and health in ways that can matter the most.
Charles Sun is the vice president of R&D at Sengled, a company that’s built its design philosophy around helping customers simplify their surroundings with innovative lighting products. We recently got to chat with Charles about some of the things Sengled is doing in the smart lighting arena.
How did Sengled become a company, what was the impetus for its creation?
Sengled has been dedicated to making daily life heathy, happy, and convenient through lighting products designed for simplicity and style.
Aesthetic design seems to be an important element of the Sengled brand, what are some of the challenges that come with designing for ease-of-use as well as looks?
Our goal isn’t to change light bulbs so dramatically that it becomes difficult for users to adopt them. In the design tone and manner, we try to keep the existing form factor and appearance consistent while incorporating modern characteristics of high-tech functionality. We try to transform a traditional light bulb or lamp into smart lighting seamlessly. However, there are several real challenges to overcome. In addition to meeting appearance standards for the design, we must solve the interaction problem of cooling the LEDs, managing the high-speed circuitry of the hardware and RF design to achieve the desired aesthetic, and meeting reliability and performance standards without increasing their size in comparison with the traditional lighting products.
Tell us about some of the innovations you’ve pioneered, specifically with integrating audio and security into LEDs.
Our multi-channel wireless speaker system, Pulse, is a synchronous multi-channel speaker light and the world's first one that can play with a mobile phone. It can support up to eight lights simultaneously while playing music and can adjust each light to the sound and volume for each speaker. Integrated with an IP Camera, our Snap can achieve 1080p HD real-time video viewing, video cloud storage, and high-precision motion detection with the full function of standard waterproof PAR38 lighting.
How long has Silicon Labs been part of your solution, and can you tell us about the selection process? What made Silicon Labs the choice for you?
We selected Silicon Labs in 2015 after evaluating five zigbee solution vendors. In making the decision, we carefully considered product performance, protocol stability and compatibility, as well as in-time technical and business support.
You recently received the Innovation Award in Eco-Design and Sustainable Technologies category at CES, can you tell us about what sets Pulse Link and Element apart from such a busy market?
Pulse Link is an extension of the Pulse family. It evolved from a multi-channel Bluetooth playback speaker system into a video playback system. Its typical application is for watching TV in living room. At present, most companies designing the connected bulb only provide the most basic connection and control functions. In addition to our modern design, excellent RF performance, and stable performance, the Element is our first energy-saving LED as well as the first in our tree planting plan. The Element combines built-in, cost-effective power detection circuitry and algorithms (has been granted US patent), making our products unique and in line with the current trend of energy-saving and carbon emission reduction.
Finally, where do you see the IoT market heading in the next 5-10 years?
Integrated IoT solution with lighting and security should be the focus of the future. If the product experience and price can be dramatically improved at the same time, the progress will be accelerated.
We were excited to recently sit down with Gimmy Chu, the CEO and a cofounder of Nanoleaf, a Smart Lighting company. With worldwide offices in Canada, Hong Kong, and China, Nanoleaf has been delivering never-before-seen lighting designs since 2012 with a passion for cutting-edge design and sustainability.
Tell us a little about Nanoleaf; how do you describe your work to people?
At our core, we are a smart lighting company on a mission for sustainability. We believe in creating smarter, more efficient lighting that offers a more exciting experience for consumers while also forging a more sustainable future for the planet. We often say that we want to break the barriers between doing good, looking good, and feeling good. We’ve focused a lot on thinking outside of the box when it comes down to product design as well; that is truly one of our passions.
Your award-winning design work certainly speaks for itself. How did you even begin to approach smart lighting in the way that you do? You’re very unique.
The other two cofounders and I were actually friends at university. We had a really strong bond. And a lot of that forged over the three of us building solar-powered cars together in a class. After graduation, the world pulled us in different ways. One of us went into pharmaceuticals, one into manufacturing in China, and I was on a more traditional corporate path of my own.
Despite the distance, we kept in touch. And more important, we kept trying to brainstorm ways we could work together again, what we could try and make together that was completely different. Because that’s another one of our drivers: we want to make things that just don’t exist in the market. After many late-night Skype sessions, we landed on lighting as a great way to contribute to sustainability.
Our first product we made together was actually a standard light bulb, but it was actually the most energy-efficient light bulb in the world; and we actually still offer a Classic Series of light bulb technology. But then the market demands of the IoT called us, and the necessity to play in a system where people could control their light bulbs, and where the light bulbs could talk to other devices as needed—that’s what we dove into.
Our forays into the IoT spaces included the Smarter Kit we crowd-funded on Indiegogo—an Apple HomeKit-compatible offering. It was outfitted with a Nanoleaf Hub that allowed integration with Apple and a Nanoleaf Smart Ivy bulb. The Smart Ivy bulb still has more power than any other smart bulb on the market today. It’s a 60W equivalent bulb that uses only 7.5W of energy to produce 800 Lumens, and we managed to give it an Art Deco design no one had ever seen before in a light bulb.
And our newest product offering is the Nanoleaf Aurora. It’s a set of modular LED panels that truly lets people customize and illuminate their space in ways that simply weren't possible before. You can control it and customize it completely to your taste and space—even with your voice. The Aurora was largely inspired by the idea of recreating natural light, so that people could experience the same warm soothing qualities indoors as well—especially during winter when there’s less sunlight hours.
And what’s next for Nanoleaf? Where do you see Smart Lighting itself heading?
We’re working on a new line that will launch this fall called the Aurora Rhythm. Like with everything we’ve done, we’re trying to push people to think outside the notion that lighting is just approximating a candle—the original home lighting product. Lighting has profound effects on your mood, energy levels, and overall well-being. It’s a very important aspect of living well every day, and we want to help improve that with each new product we release.
Can you elaborate on your approximating a candle comment? That’s intriguing.
Well, the thing about lighting in my opinion is that for a long time a light bulb was really just taking the idea of a candle flame and turning it upside down to hang from the ceiling, then connecting it to wires to light up a whole home. This idea of using light in a room is the box that people have placed lighting in. With today’s technology, we’ve eliminated these restrictions. The freedom of the Aurora panels lets people control and customize where they want their lighting, the shape and design, as well as the specific colors they want to set. It offers a full spectrum of lighting customizations to play with. Smart lighting is going to continue to push this boundary, as it should.
What Silicon Labs product are you using at Nanoleaf, and why did you go with it?
We’ve been using Silicon Labs since the beginning, and they’ve been integrated into several products now. The Smarter Kit I mentioned used your ZigBee SoCs and communications stack. These had a very low power implementation and were very easy to use. The Aurora used an 8-bit MCU. And the upcoming Aurora Rhythm slated for release this August is using the Bluetooth Blue Gecko SoC.
I will also genuinely say that we’ve truly valued our partnership with Silicon Labs. Our R&D team has spent time with your R&D teams. The environment is collaborative with an openness to help each other and share knowledge. This kind of collaboration has helped us push boundaries and reach our goals. It’s been a trusted, pivotal partnership in my mind.
Where do you see the collective IoT heading in the next 5–8 years in your opinion given your overall exposure to the space?
Well, I think it’s safe to say that the standardization issue hopefully will get more resolution. A lot of entities out there still seem to be vested in a more proprietary approach to the IoT. Real standardization of the protocols everyone is following will really push the IoT to its next level of innovation in my opinion. The other thing to watch for is the progress of both voice recognition and AI within the space.