Some Short Thoughts On Smart Tags

by @edent | , , , | 14 comments | Read ~213 times.

So Apple have released some BlueTooth tags. As per their standard operating procedure, the rest of us have been using them for years, but now Apple has "invented" them they are suddenly interesting.

Here's my review from 5 years ago of the Chipolo BlueTooth tag. Amusingly, Apple have decided to go with a user-replaceable battery - unlike many of their other devices. I wonder why they didn't go for wireless charging - like the TinTag had a few years ago?

Anyway, the Apple involvement adds three significant things:

  1. Better directional navigation. Rather than just telling you how far away from the thing you are, it tells you roughly where the thing is.
  2. Improved community features. Having everyone with an iThing being able to find your lost puppy is a game-changer. Companies like Chipolo could never get that traction by themselves.
  3. Higher price. Because Apple.

The first two are genuinely useful. First generation tags were able to give you distance and play a little noise. Good for Apple on innovating. With 40% of the UK having an iDevice there's a good chance that someone will walk by your dropped keys.

But the price...

I used the Chipolo and TinTag for a long time - but I couldn't justify the cost. I just don't lose my keys that often. Having them on my luggage was vaguely useful when disembarking from an aeroplane - but hardly essential. In any case, you still want a physical tag with something written on it for people who don't have the right app.

I used Physical Web Tokens which also suffered from the same flaw - overpriced and inaccessible to the majority of people

Is £25 a reasonable price for insurance if you ever lose your bag, keys, or pet? Maybe. And I'm sure the PR teams will shortly begin churning out feel-good stories about how lost dogs were reunited with distraught owners thanks to the magic of Apple.

But do people lose valuable stuff that often? I want to know where I put the spare HDMI cable. Or which cupboard has the nutmug. Or who borrowed my favourite mug. No one is bunging a pony down for that.

I long for the world envisaged by Cory Doctorow in his book Makers - where smart tags are cheap as dirt and ubiquitous.

“One of the big barriers to roommate harmony is the correct disposition of stuff. When you leave your book on the sofa, I have to move it before I can sit down and watch TV. Then you come after me and ask me where I put your book. Then we have a fight. There’s stuff that you don’t know where it goes, and stuff that you don’t know where it’s been put, and stuff that has nowhere to put it. But with tags and a smart chest of drawers, you can just put your stuff wherever there’s room and ask the physical space to keep track of what’s where from moment to moment.
He reached for his computer and asked it to find him the baseball gloves. Two of the drawers on the living-room walls glowed pink. He fetched the gloves down, tossed one to Lester, and picked up his ball.

We're a little way off that dream at the moment. RFID tags are getting pretty cheap - but they're short range. You'd need a network of high-powered sensors in a room to be able to do basic location finding.

So, a hearty well-done to Apple for getting in to the physical location game. Let's hope it re-energises the sector and drives the cost down to ubiquity.

14 thoughts on “Some Short Thoughts On Smart Tags

  1. I did order a 4-pack but I agree that once you get beyond a few mostly obvious things it's not super-useful (and is only mildly useful as it is). My biggest use case for super cheap and small short-range would be have I grabbed everything in the hotel room.

  2. Richard says:

    I have two Tiles, one on my keyring, and one that lives in my travel bag of assorted charging cables, which means it usually comes with me if I'm travelling. Not that I've travelled anywhere in the last year, but it least it means if I did, I'd probably be able to find my keys

  3. Tile Mates—probably the closest known competitor brand—are £20 on Amazon. £25 for Apple's product seems fine?

    I just wish they had other form factors. Buttons are fine, but credit card size would be an easy win for wallets/purses/work lanyards etc.

  4. I bought 4 and they've come in handy but yes the form factor and lack of keyhole is more Apple shithousery... like selling £80 chargers without the USB cable

  5. Paul Curry says:

    I've only ever used Tile, but have changed entirely over to AirTags (have 12 in the household now). The main difference is that AirTags work properly, lmao. Tile is an absolute disaster.

  6. I know you mention it in the blog but I think you still appear to slightly underrate the power of the network, which is the real transformative thing. Plus tags will inevitably start to be built in to anything even slightly valuable soon (headphones, bikes, etc).

  7. NigelM says:

    They have bluetooth, but the "invention" is that they use U1 Ultra-wideband. And that they have opened up their whole network for anyone to produce these tags.

    This gives the capability for extremely high precision. Like a low number of CM.

    Which would mean there is the capability, for example, if you stuck a couple in fixed locations around your house, for your phone (or iWatch, this also has U1) to be able to triangulate which exact room of the house you are in at all times.

    This would be very interesting for home automation, as 'presence' detection is currently pretty much "extremely flakey".

    To what extent they actually will expose that kind of functionality is anyone's guess.


  8. Paul Curry says:

    1) Wallet
    2) Keys
    3) Motorbike
    4) Car
    5) The cat
    6) Dede's constantly going missing work USB stick
    7) Dede's handbag
    8) Dede's keys
    9) Dede's work access lanyard
    10-12: Spare as yet

  9. Ben Smith says:

    TBH I would pay double just for direction finding. Knowing my keys are in the house but inaudible is no use to me. Knowing they are in the coat cupboard means I can make the school-run on time.

    The form-factor is crap tho' (for now, first gen, etc)

  10. Ben Smith says:

    Also it doesn't tell you 'roughly' where it is, it's very accurate in direction and distance.

  11. Ben Smith says:

    And… (whilst I am on a roll) the value for me is not because I lose a lot of stuff but to save me from having to look for it. My wallet's either in the car, office, kitchen or actually lost. 3 clicks, office. Grab it, don't miss train etc.

  12. Paul Webster says:

    Another clever feature is the ... tell me (if I have an iPhone and) someone has hidden a tag in my bag/car/pocket ... in other words did someone try to track me in the physical world.

  13. Tim Hobbs says:

    I was once asked to comment on a requirement to track equipment on fire engines. After a job, in the dark, exhausted and at a chaotic scene it’s very common to leave stuff behind or put it on the wrong appliance.

    The requirement was a dashboard screen or similar that could say “hey, the pump and the spade are missing”. The tags have to be cheap, reliable, small and very robust. It wasn’t really practical at the time but this kind of mass-market stuff brings it a step closer.

  14. I dread to think what your nutmug is used for...

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