IoT

Helium launches $51M-funded ‘LongFi’ IoT alternative to cellular

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Bluetooth, cryptocurrency, Enterprise, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, hardware, Helium, IoT, Mobile, Recent Funding, Shawn Fanning, Startups, TC, Transportation, Union Square Ventures, wifi | No Comments

With 200X the range of Wi-Fi at 1/1000th of the cost of a cellular modem, Helium’s “LongFi” wireless network debuts today. Its transmitters can help track stolen scooters, find missing dogs via IoT collars and collect data from infrastructure sensors. The catch is that Helium’s tiny, extremely low-power, low-data transmission chips rely on connecting to P2P Helium Hotspots people can now buy for $495. Operating those hotspots earns owners a cryptocurrency token Helium promises will be valuable in the future…

The potential of a new wireless standard has allowed Helium to raise $51 million over the past few years from GV, Khosla Ventures and Marc Benioff, including a new $15 million Series C round co-led by Union Square Ventures and Multicoin Capital. That’s in part because one of Helium’s co-founders is Napster inventor Shawn Fanning. Investors are betting that he can change the tech world again, this time with a wireless protocol that like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth before it could unlock unique business opportunities.

Helium already has some big partners lined up, including Lime, which will test it for tracking its lost and stolen scooters and bikes when they’re brought indoors, obscuring other connectivity, or their battery is pulled, out deactivating GPS. “It’s an ultra low-cost version of a LoJack” Helium CEO Amir Haleem says.

InvisiLeash will partner with it to build more trackable pet collars. Agulus will pull data from irrigation valves and pumps for its agriculture tech business. Nestle will track when it’s time to refill water in its ReadyRefresh coolers at offices, and Stay Alfred will use it to track occupancy status and air quality in buildings. Haleem also imagines the tech being useful for tracking wildfires or radiation.

Haleem met Fanning playing video games in the 2000s. They teamed up with Fanning and Sproutling baby monitor (sold to Mattel) founder Chris Bruce in 2013 to start work on Helium. They foresaw a version of Tile’s trackers that could function anywhere while replacing expensive cell connections for devices that don’t need high bandwith. Helium’s 5 kilobit per second connections will compete with SigFox, another lower-power IoT protocol, though Haleem claims its more centralized infrastructure costs are prohibitive. It’s also facing off against Nodle, which piggybacks on devices’ Bluetooth hardware. Lucky for Helium, on-demand rental bikes and scooters that are perfect for its network have reached mainstream popularity just as Helium launches six years after its start.

Helium says it already pre-sold 80% of its Helium Hotspots for its first market in Austin, Texas. People connect them to their Wi-Fi and put it in their window so the devices can pull in data from Helium’s IoT sensors over its open-source LongFi protocol. The hotspots then encrypt and send the data to the company’s cloud that clients can plug into to track and collect info from their devices. The Helium Hotspots only require as much energy as a 12-watt LED light bulb to run, but that $495 price tag is steep. The lack of a concrete return on investment could deter later adopters from buying the expensive device.

Only 150-200 hotspots are necessary to blanket a city in connectivity, Haleem tells me. But because they need to be distributed across the landscape, so a client can’t just fill their warehouse with the hotspots, and the upfront price is expensive for individuals, Helium might need to sign up some retail chains as partners for deployment. As Haleem admits, “The hard part is the education.” Making hotspot buyers understand the potential (and risks) while demonstrating the opportunities for clients will require a ton of outreach and slick marketing.

Without enough Helium Hotspots, the Helium network won’t function. That means this startup will have to simultaneously win at telecom technology, enterprise sales and cryptocurrency for the network to pan out. As if one of those wasn’t hard enough.

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Tibbits are colorful pre-programmed modules for building IoT devices

Posted by | Computex, Computex 2019, Gadgets, IoT, pre-programmed modules, taiwan, TC, Tibbits, Tibbo, Tibbo Technology | No Comments

At first glance, Tibbits look like building blocks, but each one is a module or a connector that makes it easier to build connected devices and systems. Tibbits were created by Tibbo Technology, a Taipei-based startup that exhibited at Computex this week (it showed off a humanoid robot built from various Tibbits).

Pre-programmed Tibbit modules from Tibbo

Pre-programmed Tibbit modules from Tibbo

The heart of the Red Dot Award-winning Tibbo Project System (the company used bright colors to make its modules stand out from other hardware) is the Tibbo Project PCB, which includes a CPU, memory and Ethernet port. Then you pick Tibbits, with pre-programmed functionality (such as RS232/422/485 modules, DAC and ADC devices, power regulators, temperature, humidity or pressure sensors or PWM generators), to plug into your PCB. Once done, you can place your project in one of Tibbo’s three enclosure kits (custom enclosures are also available).

Tibbo also offers an online configurator that lets you preview your device to see if it will work the way you want before you begin building, and its own programming languages (Tibbo BASIC and Tibbo C) and app development platform.

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Spy on your smart home with this open source research tool

Posted by | chromium, Gadgets, Internet of Things, IoT, IoT Inspector, Princeton University, privacy, privacy research, Security, smart devices, smart home devices, traffic analyzer, WireShark | No Comments

Researchers at Princeton University have built a web app that lets you (and them) spy on your smart home devices to see what they’re up to.

The open source tool, called IoT Inspector, is available for download here. (Currently it’s Mac OS only, with a wait list for Windows or Linux.)

In a blog about the effort the researchers write that their aim is to offer a simple tool for consumers to analyze the network traffic of their Internet connected gizmos. The basic idea is to help people see whether devices such as smart speakers or wi-fi enabled robot vacuum cleaners are sharing their data with third parties. (Or indeed how much snitching their gadgets are doing.)

Testing the IoT Inspector tool in their lab the researchers say they found a Chromecast device constantly contacting Google’s servers even when not in active use.

A Geeni smart bulb was also found to be constantly communicating with the cloud — sending/receiving traffic via a URL (tuyaus.com) that’s operated by a China-based company with a platform which controls IoT devices.

There are other ways to track devices like this — such as setting up a wireless hotspot to sniff IoT traffic using a packet analyzer like WireShark. But the level of technical expertise required makes them difficult for plenty of consumers.

Whereas the researchers say their web app doesn’t require any special hardware or complicated set-up so it sounds easier than trying to go packet sniffing your devices yourself. (Gizmodo, which got an early look at the tool, describes it as “incredibly easy to install and use”.)

One wrinkle: The web app doesn’t work with Safari; requiring either Firefox or Google Chrome (or a Chromium-based browser) to work.

The main caveat is that the team at Princeton do want to use the gathered data to feed IoT research — so users of the tool will be contributing to efforts to study smart home devices.

The title of their research project is Identifying Privacy, Security, and Performance Risks of Consumer IoT Devices. The listed principle investigators are professor Nick Feamster and postdoctoral researcher Danny Yuxing Huang at the university’s Computer Science department.

The Princeton team says it intends to study privacy and security risks and network performance risks of IoT devices. But they also note they may share the full dataset with other non-Princeton researchers after a standard research ethics approval process. So users of IoT Inspector will be participating in at least one research project. (Though the tool also lets you delete any collected data — per device or per account.)

“With IoT Inspector, we are the first in the research community to produce an open-source, anonymized dataset of actual IoT network traffic, where the identity of each device is labelled,” the researchers write. “We hope to invite any academic researchers to collaborate with us — e.g., to analyze the data or to improve the data collection — and advance our knowledge on IoT security, privacy, and other related fields (e.g., network performance).”

They have produced an extensive FAQ which anyone thinking about running the tool should definitely read before getting involved with a piece of software that’s explicitly designed to spy on your network traffic. (tl;dr, they’re using ARP-spoofing to intercept traffic data — a technique they warn may slow your network, in addition to the risk of their software being buggy.)

The dataset that’s being harvesting by the traffic analyzer tool is anonymized and the researchers specify they’re not gathering any public-facing IP addresses or locations. But there are still some privacy risks — such as if you have smart home devices you’ve named using your real name. So, again, do read the FAQ carefully if you want to participate.

For each IoT device on a network the tool collects multiple data-points and sends them back to servers at Princeton University — including DNS requests and responses; destination IP addresses and ports; hashed MAC addresses; aggregated traffic statistics; TLS client handshakes; and device manufacturers.

The tool has been designed not to track computers, tablets and smartphones by default, given the study focus on smart home gizmos. Users can also manually exclude individual smart devices from being tracked if they’re able to power them down during set up or by specifying their MAC address.

Up to 50 smart devices can be tracked on the network where IoT Inspector is running. Anyone with more than 50 devices is asked to contact the researchers to ask for an increase to that limit.

The project team has produced a video showing how to install the app on Mac:

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Amazon stops selling stick-on Dash buttons

Posted by | Amazon, amazon dash, api, button, connected objects, Dash, dash button, Dash Replenishment, e-commerce, eCommerce, Gadgets, Germany, Internet of Things, IoT, voice assistant | No Comments

Amazon has confirmed it has retired physical stick-on Dash buttons from sale — in favor of virtual alternatives that let Prime Members tap a digital button to reorder a staple product.

It also points to its Dash Replenishment service — which offers an API for device makers wanting to build internet-connected appliances that can automatically reorder the products they need to function, be it cat food, batteries or washing power — as another reason why physical Dash buttons, which launched back in 2015 (costing $5 a pop), are past their sell-by date.

Amazon says “hundreds” of IoT devices capable of self-ordering on Amazon have been launched globally to date by brands including Beko, Epson, illy, Samsung and Whirlpool, to name a few.

So why press a physical button when a digital one will do? Or, indeed, why not do away with the need to push a button all and just let your gadgets rack up your grocery bill all by themselves while you get on with the importance business of consuming all the stuff they’re ordering?

You can see where Amazon wants to get to with its “so customers don’t have to think at all about restocking” line. Consumption that entirely removes the consumer’s decision-making process from the transactional loop is quite the capitalist wet dream. Though the company does need to be careful about consumer protection rules as it seeks to excise friction from the buying process.

The e-commerce behemoth also claims customers are “increasingly” using its Alexa voice assistant to reorder staples, such as via the Alexa Shopping voice shopping app (Amazon calls it “hands-free shopping”) that lets people inform the machine about a purchase intent and it will suggest items to buy based on their Amazon order history.

Albeit, it offers no actual usage metrics for Alexa Shopping. So that’s meaningless PR.

A less flashy but perhaps more popular option than “hands-free shopping,” which Amazon also says has contributed to making physical Dash buttons redundant, is its Subscribe & Save program.

This “lets customers automatically receive their favorite items every month,” as Amazon puts it. It offers an added incentive of discounts that kick in if the user signs up to buy five or more products per month. But the mainstay of the sales pitch is convenience with Amazon touting time saved by subscribing to “essentials” — and time saved from compiling boring shopping lists once again means more time to consume the stuff being bought on Amazon…

In a statement about retiring physical Dash buttons from global sale on February 28, Amazon also confirmed it will continue to support existing Dash owners — presumably until their buttons wear down to the bare circuit board from repeat use.

“Existing Dash Button customers can continue to use their Dash Button devices,” it writes. “We look forward to continuing support for our customers’ shopping needs, including growing our Dash Replenishment product line-up and expanding availability of virtual Dash Buttons.”

So farewell then clunky Dash buttons. Another physical push-button bites the dust. Though plastic-y Dash buttons were quite unlike the classic iPhone home button — always seeming temporary and experimental rather than slick and coolly reassuring. Even so, the end of both buttons points to the need for tech businesses to tool up for the next wave of contextually savvy connected devices. More smarts, and more controllable smarts is key.

Amazon’s statement about “shifting focus” for Dash does not mention potential legal risks around the buttons related to consumer rights challenges — but that’s another angle here.

In January a court in Germany ruled Dash buttons breached local e-commerce rules, following a challenge by a regional consumer watchdog that raised concerns about T&Cs that allow Amazon to substitute a product of a higher price or even a different product entirely than what the consumer had originally selected. The watchdog argued consumers should be provided with more information about price and product before taking the order — and the judges agreed — though Amazon said it would seek to appeal.

While it’s not clear whether or not that legal challenge contributed to Amazon’s decision to shutter Dash, it’s clear that virtual Dash buttons offer more opportunities for displaying additional information prior to a purchase than a screen-less physical Dash button. They also are more easily adaptable to any tightening legal requirements across different markets.

The demise of the physical Dash was reported earlier by CNET.

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Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable ‘parasite’

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Alexa, artificial intelligence, connected devices, Europe, Gadgets, GitHub, Google, google home, hardware, Home Automation, Internet of Things, IoT, neural network, privacy, Security, smart assistant, smart speaker, Speaker | No Comments

What do you get when you put one internet-connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite’” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen.

The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to whisper sweet nonsense into Amazon Alexa’s (or Google Home’s) always-on ear so it can’t accidentally snoop on your home.

Project Alias from Bjørn Karmann on Vimeo.

Alias will only stop feeding noise into its host’s speakers when it hears its own wake command — which can be whatever you like.

The middleman IoT device has its own local neural network, allowing its owner to christen it with a name (or sound) of their choosing via a training interface in a companion app.

The open-source TensorFlow library was used for building the name training component.

So instead of having to say “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to talk to a commercial smart speaker — and thus being stuck parroting a big tech brand name in your own home, not to mention being saddled with a device that’s always vulnerable to vocal pranks (and worse: accidental wiretapping) — you get to control what the wake word is, thereby taking back a modicum of control over a natively privacy-hostile technology.

This means you could rename Alexa “Bezosallseeingeye,” or refer to your Google Home as “Carelesswhispers.” Whatever floats your boat.

Once Alias hears its custom wake command it will stop feeding noise into the host speaker — enabling the underlying smart assistant to hear and respond to commands as normal.

“We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems,” explain Karmann and Knudsen in a write-up of the project here. “Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.”

Alias offers a glimpse of a richly creative custom future for IoT, as the means of producing custom but still powerful connected technology products becomes more affordable and accessible.

And so also perhaps a partial answer to IoT’s privacy problem, for those who don’t want to abstain entirely. (Albeit, on the security front, more custom and controllable IoT does increase the hackable surface area — so that’s another element to bear in mind; more custom controls for greater privacy does not necessarily mesh with robust device security.)

If you’re hankering after your own Alexa-disrupting blob-topper, the pair have uploaded a build guide to Instructables and put the source code on GitHub. So fill yer boots.

Project Alias is of course not a solution to the underlying tracking problem of smart assistants — which harvest insights gleaned from voice commands to further flesh out interest profiles of users, including for ad targeting purposes.

That would require either proper privacy regulation or, er, a new kind of software virus that infiltrates the host system and prevents it from accessing user data. And — unlike this creative physical IoT add-on — that kind of tech would not be at all legal.

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Bumblebees bearing high-tech backpacks act as a living data collection platform

Posted by | bees, biotech, Gadgets, hardware, Internet of Things, IoT, science, TC, university of washington, Wearables | No Comments

There’s lots of research going into tiny drones, but one of the many hard parts is keeping them in the air for any real amount of time. Why not hitch a ride on something that already flies all day? That’s the idea behind this project that equips bumblebees with sensor-filled backpacks that charge wirelessly and collect data on the fields they visit.

A hive full of these cyber-bees could help monitor the health of a field by checking temperature and humidity, as well as watching for signs of rot or distress in the crops. A lot of this is done manually now, and of course drones are being set to work doing it, but if the bees are already there, why not get them to help out?

The “Living IoT” backpack, a tiny wafer loaded with electronics and a small battery, was designed by University of Washington engineers led by Shyam Gollakotta. He’s quick to note that although the research does to a certain extent take advantage of these clumsy, fuzzy creatures, they were careful to “follow best methods for care and handling.”

Part of that is minimizing the mass of the pack; other experiments have put RFID antennas and such on the backs of bees and other insects, but this is much more sophisticated.

The chip has sensors and an integrated battery that lets it run for seven hours straight, yet weighs just 102 milligrams. A full-grown bumblebee, for comparison, could weigh anywhere from two to six times that.

They’re strong fliers, if not graceful ones, and can carry three-quarters of their body weight in pollen and nectar when returning to the hive. So the backpack, while far from unnoticeable, is still well within their capabilities; the team checked with biologists in the know first, of course.

“We showed for the first time that it’s possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones,” explained Gollakotta in a UW news release. “We decided to use bumblebees because they’re large enough to carry a tiny battery that can power our system, and they return to a hive every night where we could wirelessly recharge the batteries.”

The backpacks can track location passively by monitoring the varying strengths of signals from nearby antennas, up to a range of about 80 meters. The data they collect is transferred while they’re in the hive via an energy-efficient backscatter method that Gollakotta has used in other projects.

The applications are many and various, though obviously limited to what can be observed while the bees go about their normal business. It could even help keep the bees themselves healthy.

“It would be interesting to see if the bees prefer one region of the farm and visit other areas less often,” said co-author Sawyer Fuller. “Alternatively, if you want to know what’s happening in a particular area, you could also program the backpack to say: ‘Hey bees, if you visit this location, take a temperature reading.’ ”

It is of course just in prototype form right now, but one can easily imagine the tech being deployed by farmers in the near future, or perhaps in a more sinister way by three-letter agencies wanting to put a bee on the wall near important conversations. The team plans to present their work (PDF) at the ACM MobiCom conference next year.

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Microsoft Azure bets big on IoT

Posted by | ambient intelligence, Android, api, Azure, Azure IoT, cloud computing, Google, Internet of Things, IoT, Java, Microsoft, Microsoft Ignite 2018, TC | No Comments

At its Ignite conference in Orlando, Florida, Microsoft today announced a plethora of new Internet of Things-focused updates to its Azure cloud computing platform. It’s no secret that the amount of data generated by IoT devices is a boon to cloud computing services like Azure — and Microsoft is definitely aiming to capitalize on this (and its existing relationships with companies in this space).

Some of today’s announcements are relatively minor. Azure IoT Central, the company’s solution for helping you get started with IoT, is now generally available, for example, and there are updates to Microsoft’s IoT provisioning service, IoT hub message routing tools and Map Control API.

Microsoft also today announced that the Azure IoT platform will now support Google’s Android and Android Things platform via its Java SDK.

What’s more interesting, though, is the new services. The highlight here is probably the launch of Azure Digital Twins. Using this new service, enterprises can now build their own digital models of any physical environment.

Think of it as the virtual counterpart to a real-world IoT deployment — and as the IoT deployment in the real world changes, so does the digital model. It will provide developers with a full view of all the devices they have deployed and allows them to run advanced analytics and test scenarios as needed without having to make changes to the actual physical deployment.

“As the world enters the next wave of innovation in IoT where the connected objects such as buildings, equipment or factory floors need to be understood in the context of their environments, Azure Digital Twins provides a complete picture of the relationships and processes that connect people, places and devices,” the company explains in today’s announcement.

Azure Digital Twins will launch into preview on October 15.

The other major announcement is that Azure Sphere, Microsoft’s play for getting into small connected microcontroller devices, is now in public preview, with development kits shipping to developers now. For Azure Sphere, Microsoft built its own Linux-based kernel, but the focus here is obviously on selling services around it, not getting licensing fees. Every year, hardware companies ship nine billion of these small chips and few of them are easily updated and hence prone to security issues once they are out in the wild. Azure Sphere aims to offer a combination of cloud-based security, a secure OS and a certified microcontroller to remedy this situation.

Microsoft also notes that Azure IoT Edge, its fully managed service for delivering Azure services, custom logic and AI models to the edge, is getting a few updates, too, including the ability to submit third-party IoT Edge modules for certification and inclusion in the Azure Marketplace. It’s also about to launch the public preview of IoT Edge extended offline for those kinds of use cases where an IoT device goes offline for — you guessed it — and extended period.

more Microsoft Ignite 2018 coverage

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LifeDoor crowdfunds the production version of its fire-thwarting door-closer

Posted by | Crowdfunding, Gadgets, hardware, Internet of Things, IoT, lifedoor, Safety, smart home | No Comments

At CES in January I was pleasantly surprised by the LifeDoor, a smart home gadget that’s actually worth having. These little boxes automatically close doors when smoke detectors go off, inhibiting the spread of fire and smoke. The company is heading to KickStarter to fund the production version of the device, which has several improvements over the prototype I saw.

The simplicity and practicality of the device made it a standout at a show flooded with useless junk; the small team essentially made a gadget that automatically does what firefighters all insist you do: close the door in case of fire. That can be hard to remember to do or enforce, but the LifeDoor makes it so you don’t have to do either.

Installation, on any standard door hinge, shouldn’t take longer than a minute or two. It doesn’t detect smoke or heat, but rather lets your smoke detectors and other gadgets do that — instead, it listens for the beep when smoke is detected, and quickly (but gently) shuts the door against the threat. It’ll then light up and sound its own alarm in case you didn’t hear the first or the door muted the noise.

The version I saw was fully working, but was 3D-printed and the team was still making improvements. The production device is only about two-thirds the size of the prototype, which wasn’t too big to begin with. The new enclosure should help with detecting alarm signals as well. The microphone subsystem also will now sit idle unless it hears something, saving power and allowing the LifeDoor to go for up to two years on one battery.

Right now they’re looking to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter — they’re going for a little less than $100 each as perks. My guess is all the backers so far are firefighters. I can say honestly that if I had an actual house I would buy a couple of these things in a second. I’ll leave myself open to accusations of shilling here because unlike most smart home knick-knacks, this one is more than useful — it could save lives.

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Tile lays off dozens after a disappointing holiday

Posted by | Gadgets, Internet of Things, IoT, item trackers, layoffs, Personnel, Startups, TC, tile, Wearables | No Comments

 Tile, one of the best known item-tracking gadgets out there, has laid off some 30 people and reportedly froze the potential hires of another 10, TechCrunch has learned. This comes less than a year after the company raised a $25 million B round last May. The layoffs are reportedly due to disappointing sales over the holidays. Read More

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Call to ban sale of IoT toys with proven security flaws

Posted by | child safety, CloudPets, connected toys, consumer protection, Europe, Furby Connect, Gadgets, I-Que Intelligent Robot, IoT, privacy, Security, TC, Toy-fi Teddy | No Comments

 Ahead of 2017’s present buying season, UK consumer rights group Which? has warned parents about the risks of giving connected toys to their children, and called for devices with known security and/or privacy risks to be banned from sale on kids safety grounds. Read More

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