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6 July 2018

Bragi pushes software and services angle for its hearable hardware

Having begun life as a wireless headphone company, Bragi moved into sensor-filled versions of the devices – creating hearables that can use machine-learning algorithms to gain a contextual understanding of the world around them. That awareness is key to functioning correctly, but now Bragi wants to take that expertise further – and use the code it has created as a platform for other IoT devices.

Riot spoke to EVP Darko Dragicevic to discuss the news that Bragi had joined STMicroelectronics’ Partner Program, just a few months after announcing a new business strategy at MWC – a focus on software and services, building on its end-device experience.

Dragicevic said that the Dash was always considered as something of a development platform the Bragi Intelligent Edge (BIE) suite – which comprises the NanoAI stack that runs the machine-learning algorithms embedded on the end-device, the BragiOS package that runs on top, and the BragiNet connectivity functions that link the devices together.

Bragi views the BIE as a platform for connecting millions of devices, which can enable greater contextual edge computing applications. Based on the technology that let its pairs of wireless headphones communicate with the left and right channels, and understand the world around it, the goal here is to use this technology to create much bigger networks than pairs of earbuds. The theoretical upper limit for such a network is 32,000 nodes, but Dragicevic said such large networks would be very rare – although smart cities could give rise to such five-figure networks.

To this end, Bragi has created two distinct business units – the hardware-focused Products team, and the Solutions group, which Dragicevic is responsible for. The two wings do share resources, and it is not the case that hardware will be shuffled to the side.

Given the state of the consumer electronics market, we asked if Bragi was considering moving away from hardware and focusing purely on software and platforms, as many companies have done, but Dragicevic said it was still an core part of Bragi. He noted, however, that he probably wouldn’t have joined the company if it had plans to stick only to hardware, as it is so tough for smaller companies to compete against the giants. Dragicevic added that these giants had written off the idea of hearables like the Dash about three years ago, but now were all looking to crowd into the space – squeezing the likes of Bragi.

But Bragi has carved out a niche, and while financials aren’t public, it does seem to have done a good job of it. It now thinks it has something to offer to the wider IoT, through its networking and device expertise, although Dragicevic is aware that it is going to take time to see where it can best compete – with alliances and projects key to this.

Personally, Dragicevic said that he sees software and services as the way to achieve scale, pointing also to the fact that investors are so wary of hardware startups these days. With 120 staff, and headquartered in Munich, Dragicevic expects the services side of the business to grow in the next year.

The recent partnership with STMicroelectronics is hopefully one way to grow Bragi’s foothold. Dragicevic noted that STMicro’s established customer base was a nice route to market for Bragi to sell into, but that it is also looking at other chips and chip companies to grow its ecosystem. The Bragi strategy goes beyond hardware and silicon, and to this end, it has also been working with IBM on the cloud layers. We pushed for more details about the commercial agreement with STMicro, but Dragicevic said he was not permitted to share – but said that it was a pretty standard industry approach.

The BIE offering aims to provide the platform on which to build an IoT comprised of real-time contextualized user interfaces – that vision of the hyperconnected world in which a person can readily interact with every thing around them. To this end, Bragi wants to be able to provide the code on the end-device, and then leverage that footprint to provide a distributed computing platform where one device can exploit its neighbors to provide a much more powerful user experience than it could on its own.

The approach is ‘human-centric,’ and it is being pitched at consumer electronics, vehicles, and healthcare, as well as smart cities, logistics, retail, and edge-solutions for industrial applications. The idea here is that a customer will use NanoAI and Bragi OS to power their end devices, and then join these together in larger networks. Together, that gives Bragi a pretty nice slice of the value proposition for any given application.

Riot first encountered Bragi at MWC 2017, speaking to CEO Nikolaj Hviid about the way that the Dash hearables could create an audio-based UI for the physical world. The hands-on demo was pretty impressive , especially the way that the Dash could filter out audio to improve the actual thing that a user would want to focus on.

With 27 sensors inside, the Dash was designed to improve its filtering and contextual algorithms over time – enabling a Random Access Interface rather than a hierarchical search system that can run into problems when the device doesn’t understand its contextual surroundings. This is why those sensors are so important, and it’s something that Bragi is quite proud of.

BragiOS itself is based on FreeRTOS, and the embedded OS needs a 600KB footprint on the device. The code has been modified to best suite the embedded requirements of the Dash family, and to this end, about 75% of the staff on the OS side of things were tasked with R&D, at least at the time of MWC 2017. Hviid said that he wanted BragiOS to be white-labeled, in an Android-esque fashion. He also explained the origin of the name – the Norse god of poetry and music.