Zigbee and Wireless Network Sensing: Transforming Smart Home Automation

Matthew WoottonBlog


In its infancy, the smart home consisted of devices in the home that could be controlled remotely via a mobile phone or tablet. Over time, however, the capabilities of the smart home grew much broader and more complex. Different wireless chipsets and protocols emerged early on, influencing manufacturers to choose a winner before the market provided the ultimate decision. For nearly two decades, Zigbee® has been an excellent choice for closed ecosystems to work and maintain stability.

The first version of Zigbee was introduced to the public in 2005. Using an 802.15.4 radio, Zigbee chipsets are exceptionally low power and use a self-healing mesh network eliminating single points of failure. These attributes, along with key manufacturer support and adoption, have led to its ultimate success in the market. According to the Connectivity Standards Alliance, hundreds of companies have chosen it as their wireless networking choice, with billions of Zigbee chipsets having been sold worldwide. This vast quantity of deployed hardware stands ready to deploy a new sensor category, Wireless Network Sensing, through Ivani’s sensify™ technology suite.

What is Wireless Network Sensing (WNS)?

WNS is a new, revolutionary class of sensing technology. WNS broadly refers to a means of using data generated by local wireless communication networks to produce occupancy information based on people disturbing the RF environment created by messages between devices. WNS provides occupancy data like traditional sensors such as passive infrared detectors or millimeter wave radar in that it does not require the person to carry a device; it simply senses the person. Unlike traditional sensors, WNS analyzes data typically used to diagnose network issues to perform the detections, and thus is implemented purely as a software/firmware layer on top of existing systems. This allows quick and broad-scale deployments on any hardware that produces sufficient data to allow detections by a given WNS technology provider. 

Additionally, WNS allows software-defined sensing, producing specific data for particular applications. These different outputs can be generated from the same underlying data, allowing a single data collection source to enable multiple simultaneous use cases. WNS providers will take different approaches, but outputs range from extremely responsive to extremely robust, with new detection models being tested and deployed against various application requirements all the time. Key differentiators between WNS providers in the space include protocol compatibility, chipset compatibility, processing requirements, ease of deployment, and range of applications serviced.

WNS changes the game for existing device manufacturers. It provides existing devices with sensing capabilities they never had, allowing a manufacturer to effectively deploy a fleet of sensors with a simple software update. This delivers new applications for deployed devices, the potential to derive additional revenue from an existing customer base, and additional sales through improved product differentiation. As WNS is software-defined, multiple sensing types come from one set of devices, breaking free of the traditional one physical sensor for one application model. A new set of applications is just an update away.

Does WNS work with Zigbee?

Simply put, yes. Ivani is the world’s only provider of WNS on Zigbee (in addition to working on other wireless protocols such as WiFi, Thread, and Bluetooth®). Using Ivani’s sensify technology (a brand-specific version of WNS), occupancy sensing from mains-powered Zigbee devices can be enabled through a simple Ivani library integration and an OTA software update. A common refrain from OEM partners is that Zigbee “just works,” and in the same vein, sensify on Zigbee “just works.” Zigbee ecosystems are excellent platforms for integrating sensify. The flexibility and robustness of communications between devices provides a stable platform that enables various groupings and coverage patterns.

An important facet of Zigbee is that it creates a mesh network wherein devices are capable of talking to one another, not just a central hub. This allows for the monitoring of device-to-device communications, enabling detection areas (what Ivani defines as the rough 3D area where you can interact with the system) within a Zigbee network. For sensify on Zigbee, these detection areas consist of the area contained within a group of 3-4 devices. (See Figure 1.) These detection areas effectively create virtual sensors within the network, providing occupancy data that can be used for a wide range of functionalities. For instance, several Zigbee devices grouped in one room can provide room-level data granularity for occupancy data. Spread those same number of devices throughout an average-sized home, and you have a detection area that spans multiple rooms or even a whole floor. Additionally, the integration with other ecosystems by means of a hub leads to a very clean interface for using sensify occupancy data within greater automation ecosystems.

Figure 1: Diagram demonstrating how a detection area is formed by a group of Zigbee devices.

To get a taste of how sensify can be set up across different wireless communication protocols and network topologies, you can visit ivani-smartmap.com.

What can sensify do with Zigbee?

While the flexibility of sensify allows for a range of occupancy sensing outputs that can be used for a variety of use cases, the two most popular for Ivani’s OEM partners are convenience and security. Convenience triggers are suitable for a quick response application such as turning lights on when entering a room. These have a typical average response time of less than 500ms, with 90% of triggers occurring within 1 second of entering a detection area. Security triggers are suitable for a high confidence application such as home security.  These have an average typical response time in the range of a few seconds; however, an extremely low false positive rate of less than 1 false positive every 6 months is typical. Both outputs can operate simultaneously on the same underlying data, providing customers with occupancy data for multiple use cases (e.g. turning on their lights and protecting their property) at the same time from the same device.

The majority of Ivani’s OEM partners with Zigbee devices take advantage of offering both sets of functionality to their users. They see the value in unlocking multiple markets by bringing unique, seamless experiences to their existing customers through just a firmware update. The vision is a future in which consumers can truly interact with their system without relying on fiducial elements like tags and phones. Once the customers’ system is enabled with sensify, home owners can simply walk around their property and improve their daily experience through conveniences like automated lights, and when they are away, they can rest assured that their property is secure. This futuristic vision is a reality that Ivani’s OEM partners and customers have described as just “magic.”

Another major benefit of sensify is that it runs entirely local to a partner ecosystem and does not require cloud computing or large cloud data transfers to function. This demonstrates how light-weight sensify technology is, leading to reduced costs for partners and increased reliability for their customers. Sensify has been run on a range of chipsets, and is vendor agnostic within the Zigbee ecosystem. Running at the application layer, the integration path is quick, and partners can see the technology for themselves on their devices in weeks (some have seen it in days), not months or years. With WNS technology also being available for Zigbee, you really can teach your old faithful communications network some fancy new tricks.

About Ivani

Ivani is a pioneer of the Wireless Network Sensing product category with its patented sensify™ technology. This new product category allows wireless communication devices to act as occupancy sensors through firmware and software updates. Crucially, sensify technology works across a wide range of wireless protocols and devices, not just WiFi, allowing smart appliances, light bulbs, switches, plugs, and other IoT devices to provide occupancy data, bringing context aware intelligence to existing and new systems through a simple firmware update. This unlocks occupancy sensing as a service, creating occupancy data like magic which can be used for home security, autonomous lighting control, and aging in place for starters. Despite the magic of the technology, Ivani is planted firmly in reality, happy to showcase the technology running in real environments on real products, no cloud required. Let Ivani show you what its products can do today with the magic of sensify.