This box can see through walls — and it could shake up home security

1 / 6
This box can see through walls — and it could shake up home security

When Taj Manku's son was around 11, he asked his father how cellphones worked.

The boy knew there were towers that communicated with the phone, but nothing in the air suggested a connection was being made.

"I said, 'Well, it's sort of a light, but you just can't see it,'" Manku recalls. 

If you could see what Manku is describing, you would see the world awash in a perpetual glow, waves of radio frequencies (RF) radiating from thermostats, televisions and children's toys. Manku calls it "the luminescence of RF," and because wireless technology is everywhere, it's more prominent today than it was in decades past.

It's this abundance of RF that Manku and his company, Cognitive Systems, has been working to exploit — and they want to use it to protect your home.

It helps if you think of all the world's spectrum like a body of water. Cognitive Systems has built a tiny cube, a home security product called Aura, that can see intruders based on the subtle disturbances in spectrum their movements make — like ripples in a lake, explains Manku, the company's chief business development officer.

For a long time, home security products have been variations on a theme — mostly cameras, microphones and infrared motion sensors. They've gotten smarter and more connected along the way, but the underlying sensors haven't changed a whole lot.

Aura is different enough from what others are doing in the home security space that Cognitive Systems thinks it can cleverly carve out a niche — particularly among a privacy-conscious crowd. 

"The thing that makes this fundamentally different from a camera-based system is when you think about a camera-based system, you wouldn't want to put it in a bedroom. You wouldn't want to put it in a bathroom," says Hugh Hind, the company's CEO.

But with a device like Aura, "you can cover the whole house," Hind says. "There's no sense of privacy invasion."

'It's very hard to look like a cat'

According to data compiled by research firm IHS Markit, 21 million consumer safety and security devices were shipped to the Americas in 2016. Cameras accounted for half of those shipments, while intrusion sensors made up 38 per cent. 

Products that succeed in this space tend to be simple to use and install and can be controlled remotely using a smartphone app, according to Blake Kozak, an analyst at IHS Markit specializing in smart home and security technology. 

Cognitive Systems is trying to tackle all of these things, with a twist.

The Waterloo-based company was founded in June 2014 by Manku, Hind and Oleksiy Kravets, the company's chief technology officer — all specialists in wireless engineering, encryption and computer chip design who met while working at BlackBerry.

Researchers from all over the world have spent the past few years trying to use wireless spectrum to sense motion and objects with various degrees of success. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, has used wireless signals to see people through walls. Another team from the University of Washington built a home automation system that could be commanded, from anywhere in the home, using only gestures and body motions detected with radio waves.

Cognitive Systems has opted for something a bit more simple. The Aura system consists of a base station and a companion unit, placed at opposite sides of the house. Through a companion app, Aura can tell you if there's motion in your house, and how much, though not necessarily what is producing the motion, or where. (It can tell you who, but only if you register their phone with the device.)

On the main floor of Cognitive Systems' concrete-walled office is the test home, a cross between an IKEA showroom and cable-access television studio. There are grids of gaffer tape on the floor and measurement devices on tripods juxtaposed with a picture-perfect model dining room and other common living spaces.

Every object, living and inanimate, has a different signature — a different way of affecting radio frequencies — and the goal is to recognize as many variables as possible. Manku and Hind laugh when I ask if they've ever crawled around on the space on their hands and knees, pretending to be a dog or cat.

They admit they have — without success.

"It's very hard to look like a cat," Manku says.

A range of motion 

Aura is unlike most home security products that people are familiar with, and its first challenge will be proving it can detect and classify different types of motion reliably.

Some types of motion — inorganic movement produced by fans and blowing curtains — the system is able to eliminate completely. Others, such as pets, register as small blips for now, but the company is working to eliminate pet motion, too.

Visualizing the data collected by Aura is also a challenge, and one the company is still experimenting with. For now, they've settled on a side-scrolling chart that represents motion — or events — of varying types as solid bars.

"So, in a minute span, how much motion was detected in that minute? The more motion detected, the higher the bar," Manku explains. 

Human motion is easiest to spot: multiple tall bars that show lots of motion over a span of multiple minutes. It can also identify who is in the house, based on the location of your phone, and can automatically arm the system when you leave.

If the system is armed and Aura detects motion it doesn't recognize, it will send you an alert and can even sound an alarm. 

Shyam Gollakota, a researcher at the University of Washington, hasn't tried Aura's product and can't vouch for its accuracy, but has worked on techniques to detect motion and gestures using wireless spectrum in the past.

"If it's motion, we know with a very high reliability how to do it using WiFi signals," he says.

Of course, there's a difference between life and the lab, and it's too early to say how reliably Aura can perform (the first pre-order units only shipped at the end of April). The company says it can filter movement detected outside the house, for example, but couldn't provide statistics on false alarms.

"With any new technology, you have to prove it's going to work," says Tom Kerber, an analyst at Parks & Associates, who studies the home security market. "And work reliably in all types of different architectures and layouts of homes."

'Everybody wants something different'

At Aura's core is a tiny, custom-designed chip — a relatively new type of technology called cognitive radio.

The radio chip in your phone, for example, is designed to work at a very specific set of frequencies. But a cognitive radio can pick up a wide range of wireless signals — Aura's goes from 680 MHz all the way to 4 Ghz, which includes most of the common frequencies in use today. And it can process those frequencies on the same chip that receives them, which Cognitive Systems says allows it to perform its analysis much faster than using separate chips for each task.

The chip is versatile enough that the team also uses it in a separate outdoor product aimed at governments and telecommunications companies who want to be able to analyze the types of spectrum being used in a particular area — and whether it's being used properly.

Spectrum is a limited resource in high demand, and grows more congested with each year, and Cognitive Systems thinks its chip can help telecom companies use spectrum in more efficient ways. So while Aura is a home security device,  it may also offer a glimpse of wireless networks to come.

A single system can support a house that's about 2,000 square feet in size, and retails on the company's website for $499 US. The company expects most of its sales will come through partners, where it will be offered alongside more traditional home security cameras and tools.

Kozak at IHS Markit is skeptical of Aura's high price compared to other products, and isn't totally convinced that consumers are clamouring for a privacy-conscious home security device that can watch over a bedroom. (Not to mention, there are still privacy concerns when dealing with metadata, which is what Aura tracks).

But for people who don't want to install lots of sensors inside their house, he thinks it's possible Aura could carve out a niche. 

"Everybody wants something different," says Kozak. "There's not a single killer use case that dominates the market."