The Amsterdam-based startup called Trakkies taps into the power of IoT to prevent you from losing your precious possessions. Victor Wierda, company’s Head of Operations, explains how small sensors can make a big difference.
Trakkies produces micro-computers known as “nodes”. They look like tiny round badges, the biggest one still just 29 mm in diameter. Although small, these devices are a perfect example of how IoT applications can positively alter our stress-ridden, time-pressured urban lives.
“There are a lot of ways to look at what we are offering. Let’s just say: we have created mini-computers that can make any object smart and allow people never to lose their stuff anymore,” explains Wierda.
It’s simple: hang the nodes on things that matter to you, and you won’t lose track of them anymore. The objects, interconnected by the nodes into one mesh network, communicate with each other, sending regular updates about their location and signaling in case they are being moved. Wierda continues: “Basically, they can “see” what’s going on around them, and they react if they are being forgotten somewhere.” For instance, if you are leaving the house without your phone, the other things in the network notice that the distance between them and the missing object is growing. They will let you know about it through sending a warning to one of the nodes still with you.
“WE HAVE CREATED MINI-COMPUTERS THAT CAN ALLOW PEOPLE NEVER TO LOSE THEIR STUFF ANYMORE”
Similarly, nodes will let you know when something is stolen or has fallen on the ground. You can also use them to keep an eye on your pet. Furthermore, a node can be turned into a “panic button” to automatically notify someone in case you are in danger. It can also be transformed into a programmable Bluetooth button to operate lights and electric appliances, or flicker through songs on your music player. You can find more inspiration on how to use Trakkies on the company’s Kickstarter page.
Trakkies nodes are available in two forms: as micros and taggs, the main difference between the two being their size, battery life and tracking range.
Wierda says: “I would put a micro on my keys, and a micro on my bag, and I would put taggs on my laptop, my wallet and my little notebook. When I get to the office, I will put all my things on the table, except the keys that will remain in my pocket. All these items can still communicate with me over a large distance. So, if I’m away for a cup of coffee and meanwhile someone touches them, they will send a warning to my keys.”
Nodes form a peer-to-peer network: although the phone acts as the Internet gateway, the rest of the objects in the network keep “talking” even in case it dies.
Naturally, objects like keys, wallets, bags and various personal electronics are the most popular items to be tracked by their owners. However, there’s always one “mystery item” which differs with every user. Wierda explains that the majority of people prefer to buy a set of five Trakkies nodes, and the fifth one is always something unexpected and not necessarily expensive in monetary terms. To Wierda himself, it’s his battered two-dollar-notebook, for instance. “We are selling a philosophy similar to that of a smartphone: my phone is different from yours because we downloaded a different set of apps depending on our different lifestyles. It’s the personalization that matters. Personalization makes technology wanted. We developed a technology for people not to lose their things, but it is their personal choice which things they prefer to track. Isn’t this cool?”
The idea that your personal possessions can actively communicate with each other, preventing loss and robbery, seems like a painfully simple concept. So why didn’t anyone create anything like this before? Don’t be lulled by the seeming simplicity of this technology, laughs Wierda. “We equipped Trakkies with an incredible intelligence and ability to learn. When we started out, there was no technology of this sort.” In fact, one of the central parts used in Trakkies nodes won’t come out until this year. Wierda continues: “A lot of people see this little piece of hardware, and they think it is readily available from any Chinese factory. But it’s not even about hardware alone—it’s about software too, and that aspect is super complicated.”
HOW CAN WE ENABLE THINGS TO LET US KNOW ABOUT THEIR WHEREABOUTS?
First research around the technology at the heart of Trakkies started in 1999 by Adrian Blackwood, now the company’s CEO. The idea about interconnecting objects in real time and space came to him while he was working for NAVTEQ, now a subsidiary of Nokia specializing in GPS data and navigation software. Observing how objects move around the maps, Blackwood was thinking: how can we enable physical things to let us know about their whereabouts?
Most of his research was then carried out in Noordwijk, at the Business Incubation Center of the European Space Agency. Wierda recalls: “ESA saw potential in what we were doing because our technology can help them in space, primarily when it comes to asset management.”
ESA’s Business Incubation Centers are known for helping entrepreneurs turn their space-related ideas into viable technology companies. NRG Magazine previously covered two of the spin-offs coming from ESA’s BIC in Noordwijk. Here you can read more about their other alumni.
The major task was to create the software that could empower regular things to actively communicate with their owner. In order to make this a reality, Blackwood wrote a special “language” which became the cornerstone of the technology behind Trakkies. Wierda explains: “It’s very interesting because the language we are using is based on the IPV6 protocol. We make objects talk in IP addresses. It’s a whole new language but based on something everyone already knew. That’s why it’s scalable.”
It turned out, however, that the real challenge was still lying ahead. In 2015 the team was expecting that the necessary hardware would simply be produced by someone else in the industry. They soon discovered that the necessary hardware did not exist.
Now the team is waiting for the final parts to arrive from Nordic Semiconductor. This Norwegian producer of wireless chips known for being capable of running on the smallest sources of power, e.g. watch batteries, for a long time. Namely the chip to be implemented in Trakkies is the company’s nRF52 Series released earlier this summer: it is being positioned as the most efficient Bluetooth Smart SoC to date, particularly tailored to the rising Internet of Things sector.
Wierda says: “When the company announced the new semi-conductor, our whole team kept their fingers crossed—we were so happy to find out that these parts were exactly what we needed to finish the product, and even better.” Trakkies nodes will become one of the first devices to run on this chip, even though they are not mass produced at the point and won’t be delivered until December 2015.
“We had to wait for the world to get ready, so to speak. It took three years to finalize the software, and now that the hardware was finally announced, it still won’t arrive until the end of this year. It’s hard to develop things when their components do not exist. ”
The team expects to sell 400,000 units until the end of this year. This alone might seem like enough of a feat for a starting company, but according to Wierda, it’s even more interesting to think beyond the rigid numbers of items being sold. “Think about the value we are bringing to the world, to the lives of real people. It’s not about the device itself, it’s about the solution it offers.”
*The extended version of this article will be published in the 17th printed edition of NRG Magazine. It will come out in September 2015.
*All images courtesy of Trakkies