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12 September 2014

Open Garden launches peer-to-peer mesh network for IoT devices

Open Garden has announced a new peer-to-peer mesh network for IoT devices, beginning with the Kickstarter-funded TrackR. Open Garden is best known for its FireChat app, which was published as a way of avoiding political censorship by way of anonymous peer-to-peer communication. This network architecture allows hundreds of Bluetooth devices to be backhauled to the cloud by just one internet-connected smartphone.

When a user installed the FireChat app on their smartphone, they would become a node on a multi-peer mesh network. Communications between users would ride the mesh of phones until they reached the intended recipient. This allowed users to communicate on a network not controlled by a central government, and this political motive spurred the publicity of the app.

The 5 million downloads of FireChat has effectively built a crowd-sourced peer-to-peer GPS network, using the connections between phones over Bluetooth or WiFi. Open Garden now hopes to leverage this ad-hoc network to track and connect other IoT devices. The first device that will be integrated will be the TrackR coin-sized GPS trackers.

Open Garden intends to use Bluetooth Low Energy to link items to smartphones and tablets, without any pairing required on the part of the device owner. This allows any of the 250,000 TrackR tags to ping any phone or tablet within Bluetooth range to update the central database with its GPS location. This data is then pushed to the owner of the TrackR tag, allowing them to keep tabs on their items so long as they are within range of a smartphone with the correct app installed.

The system leverages the density of smartphones in urban areas, but has obvious drawbacks in rural locations or areas where a Bluetooth communication has too short a range to link to a phone. But this drawback should be offset by the fact that this network has a minimal upkeep, is self-repairing, and can be offered to end users for free. It also provides a way to link the Bluetooth communications of the devices to the cloud by a cellular connection, should the phone’s owner allow it, or over the phone’s WiFi connection too.

This method is anonymous, in that the owner of the smartphone which provides the backhaul service never knows that they have found a tag, or passed on a message. This prevents someone from using the app to find potentially valuable items, or intercepting potentially private communications.

“With the 250,000 devices in the market, TrackR is one of the most successful IoT devices to date. IoT devices require connectivity and simplicity. Because the Open Garden Network is 100% software based, it scales infinitely and the costs are extremely low,” said Micha Benoliel, Open Garden’s CEO and co-founder. “Open Garden’s technology also enables operators to generate additional revenues while embracing the IoT revolution.”

This deal gives TrackR a much bigger pool of phones to use, and not just the phones that belong to customers who have purchased its item tag. As more vendors join the Open Garden service, the network will become larger and more resilient, meaning that lost items have a greater chance of being found.

The network should provide a low-cost alternative to traditional cellular and RF M2M methods of connectivity, and one that has no real cost other than the fee paid to Open Garden and the resources required to integrate the developer’s app with the Open Garden one.

The challenge will be convincing people to allow their phones to run the Open Garden app to handle traffic for devices that they don’t own. For TrackR, this was easily solved, as they were able to sell their tags on the basis that more people meant a bigger network for finding your own item if it ever went missing. We can’t see a reason why this same approach can’t be used for other IoT devices, but Open Garden should be wary in case a user unwittingly racks up a large bill due to an inadvertent tick-box selection – but that’s still a very easy feature to make prominent in the app, and one that is being incorporated into the new design of the TrackR app.

Open Garden was one of the finalists at the CTIA Super Mobility Week Startup Showcase, where it debuted its FireChat app to great critical reception.