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The Inventors’ Corner of the IoT

By Michael Castelluccio
July 1, 2019
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The basic idea of the Internet of Things (IoT) began with embedding the internet in ordinary objects. Its first home was the “smart home” where your thermostat, doorbell, lights, and Roomba were all visibly on and awaiting instructions from your smartphone or laptop, whether you were there or away.

 

Then the corporate world turned its collective attention to this new way of extending our reach, and, as Wikipedia reminds us, “[IoT] evolved due to the convergence of multiple technologies, real-time analytics, machine learning, commodity sensors, and embedded systems.” Today, there are new, wider IoT constellations, such as edge computing wherein engineers monitor the streams of data flowing back from their products in the field. They use this information to improve and design the next versions of their offerings. Others keep notes on what the already deployed autonomous vehicles are learning from the real world of streets and parking lots.

 

Yet in all the industrial-size development there remains a quiet corner of the IoT where inventors, without much capital—other than their wits and curiosity—continue to find novel ways to plug into the new electromagnetic radio world flowing around us.

 

CROWDFUNDING ECONOMICS

 

You can check in on what’s happening in this IoT suburb by visiting the crowdfunding sites indiegogo.com (San Francisco, Calif.) and kickstarter.com (Brooklyn, N.Y.). These bankers solicit donations from online neighbors to support inventors. In return, investors get bonuses like reduced prices on the first releases.

 

THE SMART WALLET IDEA

 

Conventional wallets arrived with the first paper currency in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late 1600s. Today, they continue to attract perennial attention from designers and inventors, who both face two inherent problems. Along with their propensity for gaining uncomfortable girth, wallets are vulnerable to theft and misplacement, and, today, they’re prime targets for thieves with skimming software who harvest and sell credit- and debit-card information. The possibility for an IoT solution made the appearance of the smart wallet inevitable. A look at the team that produced the exemplar shows what’s possible in the inventor’s corner.

 

In 2015, two 20-somethings from the Netherlands took a closer look at the problem in their back pockets. Olivier Momma and Rick Scharnigg met as Fulbright Scholars in the United States and began to work there on the design of what Forbes credits as “the most successful smart wallet brand in the world.” At the encouragement of the third cofounder, Richard Canneman, the Ekster smart wallet was funded on Kickstarter and eventually became the most funded smart wallet of all time.

 

The current flagship product, the Ekster Parliament 3.0, is a small (2 1/2″ × 4 3/8″) leather wallet. It holds up to six credit cards in an aluminum enclosure that blocks RFID and NFC scanning signals. A slide button lifts the cards in a fanned assortment, and there are two additional slots for cards and a strap for holding folded cash. Most remarkable, though, are the smart functions powered by the Ekster tracking card.

 

Ekster is the Dutch word for magpie, and a gathering of magpies is called a parliament. These are appropriate name choices, not only because magpies collect and hide things, but also the black-and-white Eurasian magpie that appears to be the company logo is unusually intelligent and one of only a few nonmammals that can recognize itself in a mirror. The Ekster wallet shares a unique self-awareness with its namesake. The credit card-sized tracker that slips into a pocket on the back of the wallet uses Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and crowd GPS technologies to let you know where it is. You can use the tracker’s Chipolo app on your phone to ring your wallet, or you can push the button on the tracker card to ring your phone if it’s the phone you need to find. The app provides map locations to help. If the wallet is lost or stolen, the most recent locations of the wallet are transmitted from crowd GPS whenever a community member is in range of your wallet. Or you can talk to your Ekster with Alexa, Google Home, or the Siri voice on your phone or smart speaker. (More details at www.ekster.com.)

 

Yet, these multiple channels of communication might not be the most significant development from the project. As the Ekster team worked with the IoT solutions provider TWTG to create a new type of solar panel for charging the tracking card, it came up with a cell that takes only three hours of sunlight to provide a month of power and can even draw from weaker light sources. The technology is so efficient that FedEx and DHL have licensed it for their own tracking devices, and there are municipalities looking into adopting the technology for urban lighting solutions.

 

A very interesting place, the inventors’ corner, and it’s certainly worth occasionally checking out at the two crowdfunding websites.

 

Michael Castelluccio has been the Technology Editor for Strategic Finance for 24 years. His SF TECHNOTES blog is in its 21st year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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