Someday soon, our smartphones may replace our keys and our wallets; you’ll be able to use your smartphone to show identification, unlock your front door, pay for groceries and more. But for the moment, most of us still have to carry around a ring of keys and a thoroughly non-digital wallet, which can be easily misplaced. How many times have you had to frantically hunt for your wallet, only to find it in a pair of pants you don’t remember wearing or a purse you used once? Until the smartphone can replace those items, it can at least help us find them, with the aid of new little gadgets and apps that enable us to locate them more easily.
These gadgets don’t really have a catchy name; Joanna Stern at the Wall Street Journal refers to them as “lost-item trackers,” which sums them up pretty well. The majority are small tokens, ranging in size from around the size of a quarter to that of a poker chip. They’re simple devices: there’s not much more to them than a battery, a Bluetooth antenna, and maybe a little speaker or a vibration device. Typically they have a loop or some other way to attach them to your keys or wallet or whatever else you need help keeping track of. “Tile seems to be pretty popular, but not enough people know about it. The current version has four out of five stars in the [iOS] App Store. Not bad,” says Bryan Conklin, founder and CEO of Zylo, a company that creates and consults in mobile apps.
The most important part of these devices, as with so much personal technology these days, is the software: in this case, an app for your smartphone. The app shows a list of your trackers, and when you select one, it’ll show you a map of where it might be. The biggest problem: these trackers are so simple they don’t even have GPS in them, which means they’re only useful within the boundaries of Bluetooth —about a hundred feet.
Some, like Tile, offer an unusual kind of crowdsourced assistance. Say you leave your wallet, with a Tile tracker in it, at a coffee shop, and head on home without it. When you leave the shop, you’re moving too far away from the Tile tracker for your phone’s Bluetooth connection to locate it. But if anyone else who uses Tile goes into that coffee shop, that person’s app will connect to your Tile tracker, and upload its location, which you can access. That nice stranger won’t know that your Tile is there, but they’ll have helped you find it. Of course, this only works if a lot of people are using Tile (or TrackR, which works similarly but is not quite as popular).
The trackers are best when you lose something close by, like in your own home. The app will tell you, loosely, how far away your tracker and its attached item is, saying “within a few feet” or “about 20 feet away.” It won’t help much with direction, but once you’re close, the tracker can buzz or make some other noise to help you find it.
The latest and one of the most interesting entries in the tracker category is called Where’s Wallet, from a company called MIJLO. After just a few days on Kickstarter, Where’s Wallet reached its funding goal, so it’s clear there’s interest in it. What makes this wallet different is that, instead of having an external device that you stick into a wallet, the wallet is designed from the start to have the sensor built-in. That’s smart: Tile, for example, at around the size of a poker chip, is a fairly large item to have stuffed into a wallet. Without the need to give its sensors a case, MIJLO can make it much smaller and less obtrusive.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in the early stages of these gadgets is device agnosticism. Tile is easily the most popular and established of the category, but right now it’s only compatible with iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad. Android device users are out of luck. But there’s nothing inherent about the technology that would keep it from being available on other platforms. “It's important to make a distinction between the technology that powers these ‘apps and keychain-type gadgets’ and the products themselves,” says Conklin. “The technology is already device-agnostic.” The only thing stopping these devices from supporting Android is the time and effort it takes developers to create a new app for Android. Some of the other gadgets in the category, like Where’s Wallet and Trackr, already support Android, though none seem to be supporting smaller platforms like Windows Phone and BlackBerry.
But as for when, if ever, these devices will be ubiquitous, is a question nobody really knows the answer to yet. Conklin says: “We need standards governing the transaction of location data from these devices that all manufacturers can agree on, and that is what will take time.” He’s right — the fact that all Tile users technically have access to information about the location of all other Tiles is a security issue. But it’s also possible that these devices are just a temporary solution until smartphones render our most commonly lost items — wallets and keys — obsolete.