This week at the CEDIA Expo, many big-name companies in the home automation space will show off giant televisions, voice-integrated smart devices, and a huge variety of security systems. Also there will be Cognitive Systems, a company that last year arrived at the show with a brand new alarm system, dubbed “Aura,” that used Wi-Fi signals to determine what was going on in the home.
The Aura system was innovative in that it monitored the disruption in Wi-Fi signals around a home to determine motion and track how people moved throughout the house. It was less intrusive than video in some respects (no high-resolution pictures of you naked are shared with the cloud) but in other ways, more intrusive (the camera could “see” behind closed doors.)
Cognitive Systems CEO Taj Manku showed off the $499 Aura security system at CEDIA last year, and I was curious to try it out. But in the meantime, the company has switched to a different business model. Instead of producing its own hardware and trying to sell that to consumers and small businesses, it’s decided to offer its technology to Wi-Fi chip companies and license the technology to companies that make WiFi-enabled devices.
With this strategy, Cognitive has to convince fewer companies to buy its technology. And using its technology, we many one day be able to turn any WiFi-enabled device in our homes into a node of an overall security system. So far, it has struck deals with Qualcomm, Cypress, and Marvell.
Cognitive makes software that runs on a Wi-Fi chip that understands the way in which radio waves move through space communicating with other devices. When people, pets, or inanimate objects move through that field of radio waves, it creates distortions that the software can track. The software then calculates how the waves are disrupted to generate a “picture” of what’s moving through the field. The technology can work through walls to create these pictures, and at fine resolutions could theoretically even understand types of movements and gestures.
Existing chips inside today’s routers, smartphones, and other devices could be updated over the air to let companies such as Eero, D-Link, Netgear, and others offer a home security component as part of their products. Imagine being able to buy a mesh Wi-Fi system that also could double as a security system.
Manku says companies would likely charge consumers a subscription fee for the security service, although in some cases vendors are so desperate for differentiation they might just offer it as an option to turn on after buying their gear. As a consumer, I’m not sure I’d want such a detailed map of my home and movements within it, but that’s just me.
For Cognitive, the switch to putting its software on chips makes a lot of sense. It lets Cognitive take a new technology and apply it broadly, while putting the burden of educating consumers about the feature on bigger companies desperate for differentiation. It also gets Cognitive out of the hardware manufacturing and customer support business, which can be low margin.
While other businesses are exploring a similar technology, Manku says that Cognitive has secured several important patents and it plans to assert them as needed. He also says that because the company has moved into licensing the tech instead of making hardware, it now has more time to test and focus on ensuring interoperability between different devices.
My hunch is that if this tech takes off as a security system one of the big chip makers will buy it to help make their own brand of chips more attractive. Or I suppose a security company could buy it to put a lock on some innovative technology. Either way, we’re going to see this tech in the real world soon.