Finding lost E-things

September 11, 2013

Bernard Cole-September 11, 2013

Finally.

I am now not the only one who is irritated by the fact with all of the small, and increasingly smaller, consumer electronics devices in our lives, the only one you can find with any ease when you have misplaced it is your cell phone. Now joining me are David Schneider and Drew.

As I have written about previously,  about the only consumer electronics device that I can find after it has been lost is my cell phone: you can use another phone to call it up. When it rings, if you or a friend is nearby, you can find out where it is. But forget about the half dozen or so TV remotes, two or three MP3 players, and any number of electronic devices that have entered our lives, though.

No doubt similarly plagued is Drew, an illustrator and artist whose drawings are popular with college students and who makes his efforts available on his Toothpaste for Dinner Website . I came across his most recent effort (shown below)  in the local student newspaper. (E-thing marketers should take note of the demographics).  It shows a saddened device user and has the following caption: “Replace me with a new one. (Why haven’t you dropped me or lost me yet?”)


Why haven’t you lost me yet? (Courtesy of Drew at www.toothpastefordinner.com)

More substantive in his contribution to the topic of lost E-things is David Schneider. In his article “Forget-me- not beacons,”   in the July IEEE Spectrum Magazine, he describes his lifelong battle with losing things.

While owners of iPhones now can purchase a variety of radio beacons they can attach to their clothes or whatever, what if, like Schneider (and me) you do not have an iPhone? (Panasonic is also offering a similar capability according to the brochure contained in the package with my wireless home phone).

Inspired by a teardown he read on EETimes, he describes the do-it-yourself project he undertook to build a transmitter that he could attach to devices and a similarly compact receiver. It made use of an off-the-shelf Nike+iPod transmitter that he modified and a receiver he built using an Arduino Pro Mini and a Nordic radio receiver.

Of course, the three of us are not the only ones who are frustrated by this proliferation of small, easily-losable electronic devices and no way to find them. Do a Google search and you will see dozens of links to products that you can attach to your various items, including E-things, that will signal you in various ways, by some sort of sound, by sending an alert to your phone, cell phone or email address, either immediately, telling you you have misplaced it.

The advantage of such devices is that they can be applied to many of the various small personal items that inhabit our lives, electronic or not. And I have tried out many of them. Some work, some don’t. But usually, because they are add-ons, they also get lost. And what if you lose something to which a beacon has not been attached?  Or lose the beacons, or forget where you put the extra ones until you needed to attach one?

For E-things why can’t this capability be built in to each consumer device, especially the smaller and more loseable ones. If the manufacturers of all these wondrous devices were serious about making consumers happy, such capabilities would not only be included, but sold as a must-have feature.

The ideas are there, in their multitudes in the patents that are applied for. What I notice about the patents, though, is that most are individuals, unaffiliated with any major electronics company, and having run into the problem in their own lives, have come up with a solution and waited for the companies to NOT beat a path to their door.

I don’t think this problem is going away. It will probably get worse, especially with all the grand plans for a wireless Internet of Things. Right now we are talking about maybe half a dozen such devices at most that each of us depends on to some degree. In the IoT world, in our homes, autos and personal lives we will no doubt be dealing with dozens of such devices. And because they are wireless, easily misplace-able.

My first thought about why such capabilities are not built into most electronic devices is economic: it is not in the financial self-interest of the companies to incorporate such a capability. Not only is there the cost of incorporating such a feature, there is the loss in potential sales of a new device when I lose the old one and have buy a new one.

Because I know that the smaller the device the more likely I am to misplace it, I usually buy two on my initial purchase. So, why would a company invest in a adding feature that would virtually guarantee to cut its sales in half?

(Truth be told, though, I usually buy three, because most consumer electronics executives’ ideas of long term planning is about three months to a year: if the device sales do not immediately go off the charts in that time, it is taken off the market and never seen again.)

More likely it is a problem that is too complex for the industry to solve, even though there are dozens of systems sold to allow major organizations and companies to track goods around the country, around a building, or on an industrial campus using such things as GPS and RFID tags.

Beyond the cost and sophistication of such systems, what is appropriate for finding lost E-things in the home may not be appropriate for when we are in the car, or in the office, or out shopping.

I guess it is just a problem that is beyond the capabilities of an industry that brought us the microprocessor, the Internet, and the Internet of Things.

Too bad. I will just have to face a future of either constantly misplacing the dozens of wireless IoT devices with which I'll be sharing my life, or not buying them at all. The latter seems very appealing right now.

Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is also editor of the twice-a-week Embedded.com newsletters as well as a partner in the TechRite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Send an email to bccole@acm.org, or call 928-525-9087.

See more articles and columns like this one on Embedded.com. Sign up for the Embedded.com newsletters. Copyright © 2013 UBM--All rights reserved.

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