Over the past few years, with the rise of smartphones and Bluetooth, gadgets have sprung up to help you try to keep track of all your belongings digitally. They help you find out if you're close, to some degree, but they generally lack the ability to do the one thing you actually want them to do: tell you exactly where the damned thing is. Pixie, which is launching for Apple devices today, actually manages to pull that off, and the tech behind it is equal parts clever and promising.
Pixie is unlike most Bluetooth tracking devices which are binary. If it's in range, your phone and the tag can connect, and the tag will emit a piercing electronic scream. Pixie, by comparison, is a set of several tags that, when placed on your phone and other objects, allow Pixie software to create an actual, literal map of where all your things are.
"Pixie allows us to create what we call the Location of Things," explains Amir Bassan-Eskenazsi, CEO of Pixie Technology who went in-depth about the technology to Seniorhelpline over the phone. "Each Pixie is a node in a network that we form that connects all 'Pixie-fied items." Unlike solutions that pair one Bluetooth tracker with your phone, the Pixie system comes in the form of several trackers, each of which connects to its sister gadgets once enabled and calibrated. So in order to find your keys with your phone using the system, you not only have to put a Pixie tag on your keychain, but you also have to put one on your phone. It's not your phone finding the tag; it's the tags finding each other.
Of course your phone does play an important role. It's the Pixie app that takes this information and feeds it to you in a way that makes sense, most spectacularly and usefully in the form of an augmented reality view which takes the real-time feed from your phone's camera, and highlights the location of Pixie tags live, showing their location as clouds of colored dots.
If this sounds more complicated than a Bluetooth tag with an high-pitched whine, that is because it is, but it offers distinct advantages. "It's similar to how GPS works," Bassan-Eskenazsi says. "In our case, each one of the Pixies is both the satellite and the object being located." This type of system, in which both the searcher and the searchee are actively trying to locate other nodes, allows for the various tags to actually triangulate specific locations, down to inches.
Even if only two tags are in play, the tag attached to the phone can function as multiple nodes at once. "Pixie tracks the phone's location and uses that plus the locating object to determine the location of both," Bassan-Eskenazsi says. "As you move your phone, Pixie takes snapshots of its location, then it can triangulate using the same point in at multiple points in time, rather than using multiple points in different points in space all at once."
Each tag broadcasts on a number of spectrums, including the same spectrum used by Bluetooth devices, as well as an ultra-wideband channel which allows each tag to track the time it takes for its signal to reach other units in the web, a key factor in determining the distance between points.
The tech does have its downside, however. Each Pixie tag is powered by an internal, non-replaceable battery. Pixie puts their battery life at around 12 months, but they will eventually die. This is a limitation shared by most competitors as well. But Pixie's price is higher. A two pack—because one tag can't do anything on its own—and a phone case that can accommodate one of the tags will run you $50 where as the Tile Mate is just $25 for one. A four-pack of Pixies is $100, whereas a four pack of Tiles is currently $70, though on sale from an original price of $100 as well.
But smart tags aren't the end-all-be-all application of this location technology. In fact, they're almost more of a tech demo. While they offer utility as they are, Bassan-Eskenazsi says Pixie is already in talks with other companies about embedding the technology directly, which could solve the battery problems and obscure if not eliminate the cost. On top of that, the hope is that this technology—the ability to be able to precisely locate things that don't have their own GPS or internet connection—has applications that are as-yet undiscovered.
Bassan-Eskenazsi compares the potential to that of one of Google's greatest triumphs. "Google maps turned analog map information into digital," Bassan-Eskenazsi says. "But once you digitize it, not only can you retrieve it quicker and always have it at your finger tips. Suddenly you can do things like compare the distance from here to there, compare this route to that route. From there, you can make applications like Waze and trend traffic, and so on."
There are privacy concerns, of course. It's eerie enough that . With Pixie, it could know the location of all your prized possessions as well. A Pixie can only find other tags that are explicitly paired with it, but that still means someone who gets into your phone might also be able to easily find your keys and walled.
Stiil, there may also be enormous second order benefits from having an active, digital map of all your belongings. What might they be? It's hard to imagine right now. But it would also be hard to imagine Waze when all you've ever seen is a road atlas.