A Wireless Homing Device for Everything from Keys to Cattle

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Wireless trackers aren’t new. At the high end are GPS- and cellular-equipped collars for pets, such as Tagg. Lower down are clunky beacons that sound an alarm when keys or other objects stray out of Bluetooth wireless range (in other words, get left behind).

But BiKN, made by Treehouse Labs and debuting at CES, is especially versatile — in both the number of items it tracks and how well it tracks them. And this product (pronounced "beacon") is just a toe in the water for a company looking to install smart sensors on virtually anything. A wireless transceiver is tucked into a slim, good-looking case for the iPhone 4 and 4s. It pairs with up to eight wireless dongles (called tags) that look a bit like key chains. They link to the iPhone over a wireless standard inelegantly called 802.15.4.

Unlike the passive RFID tags in things like office security cards and E-ZPasses, the BiKN dongles are battery-powered (lasting about three weeks, says the company). So they can stay in constant, two-way contact with the iPhone. With that they can actually report where they are in relation to the smartphone — along a dotted line in the iPhone app that shows distance and direction. In real time, users can see the errant dongle getting closer or farther.

Keys are an obvious item to attach the dongles to. But so would be purses, wallets or even pets. The last of those hints at where Treehouse Labs is going. For example, ranchers could attach beacons to cattle. Equipped with sensors such as thermometers, the dongles would report not only where the animals are roaming, but also their wellbeing. If they get too hot, for example, the ranchers can get the animals to a cooler spot and save the loss of stock — and money.

That scenario is an example of the long-kicking-around “smart dust” concept of ubiquitous sensors (often called motes) that keep track of the world around us. It also feeds the “Internet of Things” concept that the Net is made up of more than virtual items like Web pages and videos. With tiny wireless sensors, even objects and animals are essentially “online.”

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BiKN, that first baby step to this virtual reality future, goes on sale this month, but Treehouse hasn’t named a price yet.

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