Small mesh networks will soon help you find things

Tags that will locate items with accuracy within inches are just around the corner.

pixie lead image
Credit: Pixie

The famous adage, attributed to many different wits, goes along the lines of "insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results."

Well, maybe that's a bit harsh, but I think you could argue that an indication of intelligence is not repeating the same unproductive act over and over again. And if that's the case, then why do we always misplace things?

Surely, the clever thing to do would be to always put things, like car keys, in the same place each time. Like when arriving home, for example. But some of the smartest people I know don't do that.

And before we get into a debate about whether those folks are indeed smart—as they look for their keys, I can happily announce that the whole argument is about to become moot.

Soon, we'll all be accurately locating things using mesh networks.

Mesh network

Pixie is a LoT, or Location of Things, platform. The technology promises to find things with accuracy down to inches.

The idea is that you affix a guitar pick-sized NFC-like tag to an object, which creates a mesh to triangulate its location. The location is portrayed via mobile app on an augmented reality smartphone UI.

Pixie says its system works through walls, too.

Geo tagging

Pixie looks at its product as more than a simple tool for finding a misplaced set of keys, though.

One example use case is for those with pets, helping to visually find them, using geo-fencing to track their whereabouts, and monitoring their vital signs remotely. It can also be used in smart home automation, allowing users to point a smartphone at a device to control it—the smartphone knows whether it's pointing at a tag.

Lists can be created that inform users if they forget to pack tagged items when traveling, for example. You could also use a tag to let you know if something has been moved—if a sample on display is touched at a trade show, the tag could alert employees to return to the stand and provide the visitor assistance.

Simpler applications can include tagging baggage when traveling or turning a light on or off through location. One differentiator to other key finders, for example, is that in this case the tags are located very accurately.

Sean O'Kane, writing recently in The Verge, says he's tried the system and it works. He says that from 30 feet away or more, "the tags we buried in the couch cushions showed right up in the app."


Pixie Points, as the tags are called, are remote sensors that can accurately measure their own distance from other points with a unique antenna design. The tags share that information over Bluetooth.

Each tag has an 18-month battery life. Indoor communication range is 30 to 50 feet and outdoor range is 150 feet.

Time of flight

Interestingly, rather than measuring distance using RF strength, the tags' mesh measures distance with a time-of-flight calculation.

In other words, distance is calculated using the time it takes the radio signal to travel between tags, rather than through correlation of RF power attenuation.

One advantage is that obstacles don't matter much. Time of flight is the same principal as is used in GPS.

The mesh network

The network measures the distance between all the points and creates a distance metric—a kind of digital map. A combination of Bluetooth and the 2.4-GHz Industrial, Scientific and Medical, or ISM, band is used within the network.

Although all of the tags, and the network, communicate with each other, the network itself, from the phone's perspective, is a single Bluetooth point. That reduces load on the smartphone and helps with battery performance.

And that's the invention. All that's left for me to do is write the closing paragraph. If only I could find my pen.

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