‘Take your pill!’ Ultra-precise Dot beacons trigger alerts that matter

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It’s a bit like magic: you walk into your home office and feel your phone buzz. It’s a reminder to check on the neighbor’s dog you agreed to look after. You walk down the basement steps on your way to retrieve a leash, and the stairway lights switch on anticipating your arrival. Finally, after you’ve made your way out the door and plugged in your trusty old headphones, your phone launches your favorite Spotify playlist.

How did it all happen automatically? A little wireless beacon called Dot.

Dot, in principle, is relatively simple. It’s a round, black, puck-like device that measures an inch in diameter and half that in width. It adheres to most surfaces — anything from a car dashboard to a living room wall — and packs a bright, color-changing LED, a Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (LE) radio, and a replaceable battery that lasts between six months and a year. That’s it — you won’t find a Wi-F transceiver, powerful processor, climate sensor, or any other wacky doodads within the Dot’s plastic thin plastic housing. And that’s by design.

Dot is the product of five Berkley, California-based engineers with the same vision: hyper-intelligent machines responsive to changing environments. “Computers in the future are more aware of what’s going on in the surroundings,” Kunal Chaudbury, one of the eponymous Dot’s principle co-founders, told Digital Trends. “There’s a contextual quality to them.”

After mulling ideas about a bit, the team arrived at what they believed to be the perfect step toward that overarching conceit: a Bluetooth beacon. The beacon would sense a user’s location and trigger actions and notifications in the background “almost invisibly,” Chaudbury said, “like Star Trek.” Why beacons? Bluetooth is a platform-agnostic technology, meaning it’d work with mobile devices from a myriad of companies. Bluetooth is more energy efficient than GPS, Wi-Fi, and other methods of triangulation, so the product would last longer on a charge. It doesn’t require the line of sight infrared and conventional motion sensors do, so it would detect smartphones around corners and walls. And perhaps most importantly, it’s capable of detailed indoor location tracking that the alternatives aren’t, meaning the beacon would trigger reliably.

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Positional Bluetooth beacons aren’t a new idea, exactly. Apple introduced support for fundamentally similar hardware in 2013, and chains like McDonalds and Macy’s have since adopted them in earnest. Even Facebook’s gotten in on the game: it provides free check-in beacons to local businesses. But the problem, Chaudbury said, is focus. “The beacon market is very fragmented,” he said. The few Bluetooth beacons on the market have a strict business bent, and even fewer offer an open development platform. “There haven’t been too many beacons that have tried to open up the use cases and treat [beacons] like a consumer-oriented product.”

On a technical level, though, Dot operates in much the same way as the commercial iBeacons slowly pervading restaurants, baseball stadiums, and big box chains. It broadcasts a constant Bluetooth signal, awaiting the moment a nearby device — a smartphone, usually — detects it. When one does, Dot’s companion coordinates actions and apps as programmed. If you’ve tied a smart appliance to the Dot, it’ll switch on; if you’ve primed an app to launch, it’ll start; and if you’ve set a reminder, you’ll receive it.

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That’s not all the Dot’s capable of doing. Its multicolor LED is fully programmable, which Chadhaury said opens the door to a whole host of use cases beyond proximity-based triggers. You can program it to glow green when, say, your roommate’s in the kitchen, or flash purple when severe weather is on the horizon, or glow red when a stock you’re following experiences a dip, or even cycle through a rainbow of colors when a package arrives. “It’s like having a personal secretary,” Chadhaury said. “Everything is at your fingertips when you walk in the room.”

The hardware is but one component of what Chaudbury called Dot’s “holistic vision.” The team is also launching “open source” utilities — “use cases,” in Dot’s vernacular — that’ll let enterprising users tap into its more advanced functions. Chaudhary described them as integrations with apps, and, by extension, the connected hardware in your home. The initial crop offers an impressive range: one launches Netflix when you kick back on the couch, and another pushes a daily agenda — alerts about the morning commute, upcoming meetings, and due dates — to your phone as you pass by the Dot. There’s a use case for tracking the number of folks who enter or leave a room; one for keeping abreast of public transportation status; one that launches Google Maps routes when you start your car; and even one for using that sends nearby users the password of your local guest Wi-Fi network.

That’s just the start of what’s possible, Chaudbury said. The Dot plays nicely with an abundance of other hardware, leaving open the possibility of far more robust use cases down the line. At launch, it supports Philips’s collection of Hue smart bulbs and Lifx lights; SmartThings, WeMo, and Belkin devices; Nest’s family of products; set-top boxes like the Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast dongle; Sonos speakers; and devices from iSmartAlarm, Homeboy, and Garageio. You can program the house to target a specific temperature when you arrive, for example, or trigger the lights in your bedroom to automatically switch on when you enter.

“It ties into the smart home,” he said. “You can use it to augment your devices’ capabilities. You can control which hardware is on, which is off, and what they’re doing at certain points in time.”

If the possibilities sound endless, that’s because they practically are. The Dot team sought to launch the hardware “open” from the getgo, Chaudbury said — the API, along with the Dot’s source code, is entirely open. And in addition to the standard array of iOS and Android development tools, Dot’s platform supports Javascript, a language Chaudhary described as “highly conducive” to rapid prototyping. “You can write a use case quickly and put it on the Dot in a matter of minutes,” he said.

It’s budding momentum Dot hopes to turn into an “ecosystem” and “new developments.” In the next few months, developers will be able to submit use cases to the Dot’s store. Apps that pass certain “quality checks” will be approved and listed, Chaudbury said. And down the line, the Dot team’s exploring the possibility of use cases that “sends information to users before they ask for it,” Chaudbury said — sort of like preemptive, predictive artificial intelligence.

As far as the immediate future’s concerned, though, the Dot team’s focusing on getting units out the door. It launched a Kickstarter campaign in August and plans to begin shipping units in September. A single Dot starts at $20.

“Our philosophy is an open philosophy,” he said. “We want to invent new uses for the Dot single day and every single week, and we think that building a rich community will pay dividends.”

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