‘Translating Location and the Internet of Things’ – that’s the topic that Rikard Windh has been kind enough to discuss in an interview with Smarter Together. Rikard’s company, Combain Mobile, was officially founded by his partner Björn Lindquist and him in 2009. In fact, Rikard has started even more companies (as you’ll discover below), but today I’ve asked him to speak primarily about Combain and its fascinating applications in IoT as well as the everyday world. As to what the company does, I’ll let Rikard begin…
BS: In one sentence, what does Combain do?
RW: Combain provides geolocation of M2M and IoT devices.
BS: Could you elaborate on that?
RW: Everything gets connected, either through 3G or wifi, so you have 50 billion connected devices. And then, you would like to know where these devices are. Most of these devices are indoors; GPS isn’t working indoors. So we are using Cell ID and Wifi triangulation to locate all of these connected devices.
BS: Perfect. How did you first think of the concept?
RW: It was back in 2006. Nokia released the world’s first mobile phone with GPS. We were a bunch of guys that developed one of the world’s first location-based social networks. But it was impossible to drive the GPS all the time because it really drained the battery of the Nokia phone. So we started gathering Cell Ids, making a cache of these Cell Ids, and using that for the position solution instead. So that’s how it really started.
BS: Awesome. I read that you credit a practice called ’Wardriving’ with helping you start Combain. I also know the world ’Wardriving’ comes from ’Wardialing,’ which was popularized in the 1983 movie WarGames. Could I ask how this all relates?
RW: (laughs) We use the word [wardriving] to refer to when we were driving around with the purpose of collecting Cell IDs. So you’re driving around hard thinking, ”I should find as many Wifis and Cell IDs as possible.” Actually, when I was away with my son – he was playing ice hockey – I was leaving him at the hockey arena for the game and then I was driving around during the game… collecting as many Cell IDs I could. It was like trainspotting. But we were cell-tower-spotting.
In the beginning, it was a lot of manual work. But later on, we got partners that included sniffing clients. So those devices automatically sniffed for us and sent data to our database.
BS: How much time did you spend in the cell-tower-spotting phase?
RW: It was 2006 when we first started. Around 2009 we had the first slightly bigger parter that was doing the sniffing for us. And then right now we get around 20-22 million observations around the world a day.
BS: What exactly is an ’observation’?
RW: When someone has an active GPS coordinate and sniffed some Cell IDs or Wifi in proximity of that, then we store that pair of data in the database.
BS: Could you explain how your API [Application Program Interface] works?
RW: Well, it’s back to not having coverage from GPS when you’re indoors. We can still read Wifi signals and take the signals from the cell towers. So if you take the unique IDs from these Wifis and cell towers, you submit them to us through the API. We return the latitute and longitude. The API is more like a translate function – like Google Translate – that translates these unique IDs and MAC [Media Access Control] addresses that don’t really say anything. And from us you get latitude and longitude so you can put it on a map.
BS: Who do you find your customers are? What do they use the geolocation for most often?
RW: The general explanation is that it’s [any company involved in] M2M and IoT. As soon as you have a connected device or any time of equipment, it could be a refrigerator, live tv cameras, or printers, or xerox machines – anything that is connected.
A funny use case is that we are helping Coca Cola and Heineken locate refrigerators in Africa. 15% of the refrigerators are stolen every year… With our technology, they can easily monitor that it’s stolen, replace it, and put a new refrigerator at that location to keep up the sales of Coca Cola and Heineken.
BS: That is wildly interesting, I never would’ve thought of that.
RW: I really like that use case. Then we are helping companies that are attaching transmitters or battery packs to live TV cameras. So if you have a camera team that is in a warzone or in a city doing a live coverage, then we help the TV team so the TV producers can, on a map or in the studio, see where they have their live camera teams, even if the teams are indoors or going into houses.
BS: Another use case I hadn’t thought of! And Combain has also just been chosen as a 2015 Red Herring Europe winner. (Past winners include, Google, Yahoo, Skype, SalesForce, eBay, YouTube.) How does that feel?
RW: It’s amazing, of course. You’re really glad when you get that kind of recognition. We’ve been working so hard for so many years. And when we started this back in 2006, 2007, nobody understood what we were doing. It’s really, really nice. In Sweden, we got the 33 Listan Award as well. (Swedish Link – English Link.)
BS: What do you find the most exciting thing in IoT or M2M right now?
RW: It’s not really related to Combain but I’m really amazed by the new types of 3D printers. Have you seen these new ones where they just pull it up from a pool of fluid plastics? They’re really cool.
BS: I want one. So, what’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not being wildly innovative or creative with Combain?
RW: I think my hobby is my other startup. The company’s called Scantags AB. We have a product called Taggisar and we are doing mostly something called In Case of Emergency (ICE) stickers. You put them on your bike or on your helmet or on the backside of your mobile phone. And then, in the case of emergency, you can scan the sticker and you have all the important information about you and your medicines and your allergies. And you have the actual GPS coordinates when you’re calling [the emergency number] so you can tell them exactly where you are. You can easily send an alarm message including these coordinates and a link to a map to your next of kin contacts so they can come and help you.
BS: Wow. Do you get to sleep much?
RW: No. (laughs). But when I’m away for vacation I’m snowboarding. And taking care of the wife and kids.
BS: Okay, so what are the next steps for Combain?
RW: We have a close cooperation with Lund University… and the next step is 2.5D and 3D positioning algorithms. Because we do indoor positioning based on crowd-source data – so instead of running around in a venue and doing manual measuring that most of our competitors do, we are [developing] mathematical algorithms that calculate the positioning of the Wifi.
BS: That sounds amazing. Thank you so much, we really appreciate you taking us through Combain.
RW: Thank you!
If you’re wondering how geolocation affects you, think of these examples of how you might use it in your lives:
– Lost pets can be found through the chips implanted in them or through devices in their collars.
– If your car breaks down, roadside assistance can find you without a phone call.
– Instagram uses geolocation technology to tag the photos your post.
– And, of course, the whole basis of Tinder interactions is formulated on geolocation.
The real innovation that Combain has developed is to use Wifi, 3G, 4G, and Cell IDs to help in location. As GPS only works outdoors, Combain‘s technology has broken the barrier of buildings. And thus – the indoor digital world is opened up for discovery.