What could be more common than a light bulb?
Well, the Wi-Fi chipset, for starters. And Waterloo-based Cognitive Systems Corp. has its sights set on the three billion of them shipped worldwide each year as potential vehicles for its motion-sensing technology.
For now, the company is focusing on the North American market for Wi-Fi routers, 150 million of which are likely to ship next year. To that end, Cognitive announced on Wednesday that its software will be embedded in Stanley Black and Decker’s new home Wi-Fi router, called Omni, a security-focused consumer device set to go on sale next summer.
Routers equipped with Cognitive’s software, called Aura, essentially turn every Wi-Fi-connected device in your home into a motion detector, since wireless signals are disturbed whenever something moves through them. For Cognitive, the Stanley Black and Decker deal is an important step toward addressing an already huge and ever-growing market, Cognitive CEO and co-founder Taj Manku told Communitech News.
“The number is very large,” Manku said of Wi-Fi chipsets, which, for comparison, now outsell light bulbs by 20 per cent. “Eventually we do want to get to the point where we become the de facto standard for Wi-Fi chipsets, where people would implement (our software) directly onto their platforms.”
As wireless devices proliferate and homes become “smarter,” Wi-Fi routers are being called on to do more than just serve up Internet access. They’ve become platforms for all manner of data applications, and home security and safety is a big one.
“One of the things we’re seeing really clearly in the market is that a lot of people in the security space are actually starting to produce routers, which is sort of counter-intuitive,” Manku said. “But it actually makes a lot of sense, and the reason is that today, people have Wi-Fi devices in every nook and cranny. Five or six years ago, that wasn’t normal.”
Companies that make electronic security technology – and Stanley Black and Decker is the world’s second largest – have realized that the best way to get all those devices to work properly is through the home’s central Wi-Fi access point, or router, so they’ve started making them.
“And because that is happening, then they can layer our software on top of it,” Manku said.
Wednesday’s partnership announcement came three years after Cognitive emerged from stealth mode at Waterloo’s Quantum Valley Investments facility on Westmount Road. QVI was co-founded by BlackBerry (formerly Research In Motion) co-founders Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin to accelerate commercialization of quantum-based technologies.
The first iteration of Cognitive’s motion-sensing technology was a hardware device called Aura, which had a custom-built chipset, looked like a large smoke detector and began to ship to customers in early 2017. Manku and his team then realized they could scale Aura more quickly as a lower-cost software product that they could license to existing Wi-Fi chipset makers, embedding it into a far greater range of devices.
Part of the appeal of Aura is that it can detect motion in any interior space without using cameras, thus alleviating privacy concerns. It can also be used by families to help care for aging parents by alerting them to any unusual activity, Manku said.
The technology, which deploys artificial intelligence and machine learning, is also more accurate than traditional motion sensors in that it can differentiate between a pet and a person, and ignore routine movements caused by things like fans.
With about 35 employees, Cognitive has benefited from being based in Waterloo on several levels, Manku said. First, it was able to tap into a deep pool of specialized wireless talent that BlackBerry built up since its founding in 1984 and then released as it ceded the smartphone market to larger competitors over the past decade. Second, it has been able to hire “a lot of very smart co-ops” from the University of Waterloo.
In addition to its long-known strengths on the technical side, Waterloo’s talent pool has also deepened on the business side, he said.
“A lot of people look at Waterloo as a very technical town, but now what’s happening is that there is an influx of people who are getting trained in programs for a lot of the business aspects of tech,” Manku said. “This has really helped us get really good talent in this area.”