In the digital age of ever-evolving technology, have there been moments where it felt like you were living in the Matrix? For one Calgarian, this feeling was the impetus behind co-founding ZeroKey, the company that has given users the ability to locate where things are in 3D space with incredible accuracy and track them digitally – and is now helping people maintain social distancing at work.
From a young age, Matt Lowe, the company’s co-founder and CEO, was deeply involved in and passionate about software development. Throughout the course of his career, he was constantly looking for opportunities to innovate. It all came to a head when he decided he was ready to launch a startup with his augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) concept, the origins of ZeroKey.
“Our goal at the beginning was to build a human machine interface that was a lot better than just a typical keyboard and mouse. The concept came from two different things happening simultaneously. I had recently watched the movie Minority Report with Tom Cruise, and in the movie, he’s using gloves to interact and navigate with the computer system,” said Lowe.
Lowe thought, wouldn’t it be great if something like that actually existed? At that time, there weren’t many products on the market with that kind of potential, so Lowe and his Calgary-based team started ZeroKey to begin early development work on his idea of a futuristic human machine interface.
“That’s where the name ZeroKey came from – we were going to build a virtual keyboard, or in other words, a keyboard with zero keys.”
“We’ve now learned why most things that are trying to do this are pretty much vaporware” – a tech term for products that have been long promoted but never made it to market. “The crux of the problem is that it’s deceivingly difficult to digitize where your hands are, or for that matter where objects are, in a 3D space – especially in indoor environments and to the high degree of accuracy that would be needed for typing.”
Difficult, sure – but not impossible, and so ZeroKey’s team of innovators continued working on bringing their idea to fruition.
While building their technology, one of the largest automotive manufacturers in the world caught wind of what ZeroKey had in the works. They would have a use for the technology in their factory. This opened ZeroKey’s eyes to the sheer potential of their idea – tracking objects and processes in a factory in 3D space – a blue-sky concept that now makes up 80 per cent of their current business.
The global pandemic has seen ZeroKey’s trailblazing technology become the basis for their fastest growing product – more on that later – but prior to the pandemic, it was already being used by businesses worldwide for other operational and production purposes.
“If you want to locate where something is in an industrial environment, if you want real-time quality control on manufacturing processes, if you want to improve health and safety in a hazardous area, our technology can do that better than anything else right now,” said Lowe.
ZeroKey’s product Smart Space is best described as a wide-area acoustics-based indoor positioning system. Kind of like GPS, but it works indoors where GPS signals can’t reach. What it does is provide building-wide millimetre-level 3D tracking of objects using a coin-sized IIoT sensor that communicates with other sensors and nodes placed throughout a space. It sounds complicated, but at its core Smart Space is a real-time tracking system, and the position data it generates is used in a variety of applications such as workflow automation, inventory tracking, and health and safety.
Think of it this way. If a factory deploys Smart Space sensors across its site and onto its products/machinery, and workers wear their own sensors too, companies can understand how elements move through the workflow chain, and use the analytics gathered by the technology to optimize operations. The technology can completely digitize functions like manual assembly processes and workflows, enabling dramatic efficiency gains and fewer process failures for industrial and manufacturing customers.
In short, Smart Space has flipped industrial workflow theory on its head. No other technology in the market offers the combination of wide-area and millimetre-level 3D tracking, which has positioned Calgary-based ZeroKey as a main player on the global stage of technology development.
How it Works
“If a ZeroKey customer in the manufacturing world wants to properly replenish their assembly line “just-in-time”, they would use Smart Space sensors on their pallets. When a pallet comes off of the racking in the warehouse and makes its way to the production environment, it triggers a perfectly timed set of events on the assembly line to get ready to receive the new material. Traditionally, the way it worked is the forklift would come to the assembly line and drop the pallet off. The workstation would then kick off a 15-to-20-minute process to reorient and unpack everything.”
“Now they use our tracking information to precisely trigger the event at just the right moment when that forklift is close to the station so they can do all those steps in advance. Now there’s no extra downtime; everything flows smoothly as efficiently as possible, and it all comes from being able to digitize the whole process.” – Matt Lowe, Co-founder & CEO of ZeroKey
More recently, ZeroKey realized their technology could help with another issue facing people and businesses worldwide: COVID-19.
“We deployed our technology to focus on industrial, enterprise-type solutions around social distancing and keeping people safe, and we have taken off like a rocket ship ever since,” said Lowe. While many companies have sent their workers home or set up virtually, working from home hasn’t been an option for everyone, especially in the industrial space. So, how could factories and other industrial businesses continue to operate and pay their workers, while keeping them safe in the process? That’s where ZeroKey’s technology comes in, which has been adopted for contact tracing and social distancing in their Safe Space product line.
This wearable piece of technology helps the user maintain their distance from others and beeps if people get too close to one another, with a configurable distance that can be set to six or more feet. Moreover, the technology also keeps track of the user’s proximity to other users, which allows organizations to rapidly contact trace in the event of someone testing positive for COVID-19. Anyone within 20 metres of you is securely logged to the device and referenced for later contact tracing – when people are working in such close proximity like factories, that contact tracing becomes integral to rapid response to COVID-19 cases and to stem the tide of infection.
“When the pandemic first hit, we had a lot of companies and customers come to us and say ‘we have this rich location data from the ZeroKey system, can you also give us a solution where we can automate our contact tracing so that if we do have a case, one click of a button and we’ve got all of the close contacts?’”
The answer was yes.
ZeroKey used their off-the-shelf hardware, mixed with some new software, and was able to provide a contract tracing solution for enterprises. And so far, it’s been well received by the company’s customers, with Safe Space shipped to customers worldwide. “The nice thing with our system is that it allows you to really have the best of both worlds when it comes to keeping staff safe and businesses operational,” said Lowe.
It’s that best of both worlds approach that helps ZeroKey separate themselves from their competitors too.
“Our technology provides the highest accuracy in the world. We’re two orders of magnitude more accurate than the next closest competitor. There’s no other wide area solution that can compete with us on that point.”
A CALGARY SUCCESS STORY
As a born-and-raised Calgarian, Lowe and ZeroKey’s success has been a feel-good story for the innovation and tech ecosystem in the city.
“I think there are new realities in terms of what the future economy of Alberta will look like. We’ve got so much momentum from great tech startups in Calgary, the sector is here to stay, and it’s growing so rapidly that the future’s very bright,” said Lowe, alluding to the amount of talent within the sector.
“I think we’ve got a strong talent base which factors into building a booming tech economy. If we play our cards right, we can definitely become a dominant player in the tech industry.”
– Matt Lowe, Co-founder and CEO of ZeroKey
“When there were layoffs in other industries here, it left a lot of people looking for something else, which I think really bolstered the tech movement. I think we need to shine more of a light on the fact that we are more than just an energy centre.”
According to Lowe and his team, the quality of life here in Calgary is quite the selling point too. “I don’t think you’ll find a better city for quality of life and all the different supporting infrastructure that goes into a city. It helps us to attract a lot of people.”
Following the success of Smart Space, Safe Space, and its other technology products, ZeroKey is on a rapid growth trajectory. “There’s no reason ZeroKey can’t be the new ‘gold standard’. We have such a strong competitive advantage over our competitors that we really see a clear path forward to that goal.”