Tile, Bluetooth, and the good and bad of tracking your valuables
How Bluetooth trackers like those by Tile can be useful and useless all at once
Tracking valuable but non-smart items like keys, suitcases and wallets with a device that can connect to your smartphone seems like a great idea. After all, the smart home is all about bringing intelligence and connectivity to everyday, unconnected items.
Tile offers a good option here, with its small plastic devices which use Bluetooth to help you locate lost items you attach them to, like keys and bags.
Tile's products, which start at $25 each or four for $60, were recently updated to offer replaceable batteries, and a new feature arrived on the app in beta form. Called Smart Alerts, this feature tells you if the Tile app thinks you may have left something behind.
To test out the latest Tiles and new software, I fitted one to my keys and slipped one inside a suitcase before heading away on vacation.
With this two-Tile setup, I can use the smartphone app to help locate the Tiles, and the Tiles themselves to help locate any device I have with the app installed - such as an iPhone, Android or iPad.
Locating a phone with a Tile is simply a case of double-pressing the Tile's button, which causes your phone to play a tune at full volume, even if it is set to silent.
You can, if they are within Bluetooth range, tap an icon and have the Tile ring aloud until you find it - useful when you've lost your wallet down the back of the sofa, again.
Tile is designed to fit onto your keyring, in in your walletGearBrain
More impressively, the Tile system also alerts you when a Tile you have declared lost (via the app) comes back into Bluetooth range of your phone, with an icon showing it get closer as the signal strength increases. On top of this, if your lost Tile strays within Bluetooth range of the phone of another Tile user, anywhere in the world, you will see the approximate location of this encounter in the Tile app, helping you track down the lost item.
I wasn't planning on deliberately losing anything, so instead followed the lead of Peter Groom, Tile's sales director for the EMEA region, who recently told me of a useful travel hack.
How to track your suitcase as it arrives at airport baggage collection
The process is simple. You set up a new Tile, call it 'Suitcase' then put it in your bag. Now check this bag in at the airport, and head to the gate.
Once onboard the plane, open the Tile app and mark your suitcase as lost. For starters, you might well see the suitcase Tile is within Bluetooth range, especially if you're on a smaller aircraft.
But the real magic begins when you reach your destination and, as you wait at baggage reclaim, look at the Tile app.
The suitcase Tile is likely out of range at this point, but will appear in the app once the bag gets close. That way, you don't need to crowd around the start of the conveyor belt with everyone else. Instead, stand back and wait for the Tile's signal strength to increase as it gets closer to you.
Like clockwork (and at both airports I visited) my bag came into view a few seconds after the Tile's Bluetooth connection with the app reached full strength. It's a simple little life hack, but one I found to be useful, reassuring, and worked really well. Good job, Tile.
The Tile app alerts you when lost devices are nearbyGearBrain
And now for the bad...
Unfortunately, a few days later I was reminded of the limitations of tracking items with Bluetooth.
I had previous set up the new Smart Alerts (beta) function. This involves giving the app the addresses of places one frequents most often - such as your home, office and parent's home, for example. You can then name these whatever you like.
You then pick which Tiles you want to be alerted about, should you leave any of the locations without them. I selected the Tile on my keys and the one in my wallet.
With this set up, the app will alert me if I leave any of those locations with my phone, but without my Tiles.
The feature is still in beta, and sometimes didn't work correctly. It once notified me to say I'd left the house without my keys, but this wasn't true.
Unfortunately, I did exactly that one morning this week. I'd popped out to put rubbish bags in the bin, right as a gust of wind slammed the self-locking door shut behind me. I paused in disbelief and checked my pockets only to find teleportation of keys is not yet possible. The garbage man gave me his pity.
I hailed an Uber to collect a key from my housemate's office. It was then that Tile buzzed my iPhone, notifying me: "It looks like you left home without 'Keys'. Was this alert helpful?"
Screenshot of Tile's notificationGearBrain
If any proof were needed that we aren't yet living in the future, where technology 'just works', this was it. Yes, I had indeed left home without my keys. Good work, Tile. But could you not have told me this 30 seconds earlier?
The answer of course, is no. Geofencing isn't accurate enough to alert a keyless individual as they open the front door with their keys sitting on the kitchen counter. In my house, this is quite a distance (and a staircase) away, but in reality I know that such accurate location tracking would quickly become annoying. I don't want to be warned about leaving my keys and wallet behind while on the balcony upstairs, or when going to bed.
But I'd like to think there is a solution here. Perhaps a Bluetooth sensor on the door which sees my phone getting closer, but the signal strength of my keys not changing. This, at least in my house, would indicate I was heading to the door with my phone but not my keys, and an alert could be issued in the nick of time.
Or how about the Ring Video Doorbell on the same door? This could see that it is being opened from the inside (triggered by horizontal movement, but with no one stood in sight of the camera), then quickly reach out to my Tiles to check each of their Bluetooth signal strengths. If my keys Tile comes back as the weakest, then an alert could be issued through my phone, or even the Ring itself, which would be right next to me at this moment.
Tile tracker attached to a keychainGearBrain
Of course, this would require at least two companies - Ring and Tile - cooperating and sharing data with each other. But isn't that what the smart home, ambient computing, and houses that think for themselves should be all about? A future where every smart home company gets along and shares data (albeit securely, transparently and responsibly) would undeniably be a good thing
A smart lock activated by my phone would have saved the day too, but relying on that excludes all renters like me, unable to change the locks of their home. I like the idea of Tile or another Bluetooth tracker company providing an alternative solution, perhaps with the help of another connected device to boost accuracy and convenience.
There is no doubt that our homes and lives as a whole are getting smarter. But until they are foolproof, I won't be trusting technology to remember my keys.