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Treehouse Labs Unveils iPhone RFID System for Locating People and Things

The solution consists of application software, active tags and an RFID reader built into a case that snaps onto the phone. In the future, the tags could be combined with sensors to monitor such things as an athlete's concussion risk.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 29, 2011Treehouse Labs, a startup product-development firm based in Austin, Texas, is releasing a wireless technology solution that enables an Apple iPhone to locate items or individuals via the use of the company's BiKN (pronounced "beacon") platform, which includes an iPhone application, an RFID reader built into a case that snaps onto the phone, and battery-powered 2.4 GHz RFID tags that could be attached to people or things. With the consumer applications, users can utilize their phone to send alerts, locate persons or objects, or set up a virtual leash. The solution is set to be formally launched and displayed on Jan. 8, 2012, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The tags are made with NXP Semiconductors' JN5148 transponder chip, which complies with the IEEE 802.15.4 standard.

The BiKN consumer app is just the beginning for this machine-to-machine solutions platform, however, says John Howard, Treehouse Labs' CEO and manager. The company is already preparing to test the system in commercial applications, using a prototype developed in cooperation with Chicago-based Shockwave Impact Systems LLC, and slated to be displayed at the CES show. That prototype consists of a sensing system that can be installed in football helmets in order to alert coaches, parents or health-care workers if a player may have hit his head hard enough to cause a concussion. In this case, the tags—using sensor technology provided by Shockwave—would transmit sensor data to a BiKN gateway that could receive information from up to 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away, and forward it to a Web-based server that coaches, staff members or parents could then access via their smartphones.

The BiKN platform features an iPhone app, a thumbsize RFID tag and a reader built into a case that snaps onto the phone.

For the consumer app, the company sought an RFID-based solution that would be quick to market and be inexpensive to buy. Treehouse Labs, formed in February of this year, spun off from InMotion Software, a company cofounded by Howard in 2008 that develops and sells gaming applications for the iPhone and iPad. Given InMotion's existing background in developing apps (the company says its apps have been downloaded five million times), Howard says he wanted to provide an app that would enable iPhone users to set up a network between their phone and other objects. To that end, he launched Treehouse with the new company's CTO, Rich Cutler, who has a background in wireless technology as an engineering manager at Motorola.

With the BiKN system, users will be able to purchase a package including a BiKN "smart case," which acts as an RFID reader, as well as tags—currently up to eight tags can be included with the smart case—and an app download. First, a user would place an iPhone into the case, which plugs directly into the phone's 30-pin connector. The phone would prompt that user to download the BiKN app. The user could then set up a network of things or individuals linked to the phone's smart case, by inputting information about what is being tagged, and then reading each tag via the phone case. The BiKN software can display pictures—for example, a photograph of a child, pet or object associated with each tag, and indicating the name of that child, pet or object.

The user would then have three options with the system, Cutler says. He could send an alert to a specific individual by first selecting the photo or icon corresponding with that person, and then pressing a prompt for "page." In response, the tag would emit an audible sound and flash its built-in LED. Whoever was carrying or wearing the paged tag could then act on that alert by, for instance, coming inside from the yard for lunch. Each tag also comes with a button that a user can press in order to locate a missing iPhone.

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