The official origin legend of Steve Wozniak’s newest company, Wheels of Zeus, will hold that its core invention grew out of Wozniak’s attempt to keep track of his dogs after too many electronic fences had failed to do their job.
“I had a few periods of shock,” he explains, “of finding that somebody had found my dog along the way. But what really intrigued me was the idea that this was doable technically.” The legendary inventor is referring to his latest idea: putting Global Positioning System technology to work around the home. GPS and radio chips had become so inexpensive, Wozniak says, that they were crying out for new uses. “I had enjoyable thoughts,” he says, “about a product category that hadn’t occurred to me before.”
That category might be called networked GPS: allowing people to attach inexpensive and unobtrusive global-positioning devices to their children, pets, elderly relatives, cars, or anything else that could end up in an unsafe, inappropriate, or unauthorized place, and keep track of them via a wide range of wireless applications. The devices, for instance, could alert your PC, home telephone, cell phone, or personal digital assistant when your child made it to his or her destination, or when your dog wandered off your property. “If your pet escapes while you’re at work, you’ll get a phone call promptly,” says Wozniak during an interview at the Los Gatos, CA, headquarters of the company he founded in October 2001. “Then you can track it precisely with a device in your hand.” The name Wheels of Zeus was chosen partially for its acronym: a generation of computer enthusiasts knows “Woz” as the technical genius behind the first Apple personal computer.
Although Wheels of Zeus has attracted about $9.7 million in two rounds of venture investments, the basic idea of linking GPS with wireless communications is not in itself new. Subscription services such as uLocate in Newton, MA, have already sprung up to exploit a government requirement that new cell phones incorporate GPS. These services charge a fee to activate the GPS function for individual subscribers. Other companies, like Redwood Shores, CA-based Wherify, sell portable GPS devices, some designed specifically to be worn by kids. But these generally sell for more than $100 each.
Wozniak’s idea is more ambitious and more homely. The Wheels of Zeus devices will do less than GPS-equipped cell phones; they probably won’t make and receive calls, for example. But Wozniak aims to push their cost down to the point where a subscriber might deploy ten instead of one or two. Rather than yoking the devices to a cellular network, as Wherify does, Wozniak intends to build a low-speed, low-power network that will relay their GPS data to end users. This wOzNet, as he calls it, would stitch together local “hot spots,” each with a range of about three kilometers, similar to public Wi-Fi nodes. One idea is that every user’s base station will function as a node for other users in a neighborhood, leading to what one investor calls “an instantaneous self-deploying network”: as more customers sign up, the network becomes progressively more powerful.
Wheels of Zeus hopes to make money both by licensing its technology and by collecting subscriber fees for the use of its location service. In January, Motorola became the first licensee, with plans to manufacture and distribute the hardware necessary to make wOzNet functional. Still, by late winter it was unclear when the first-generation product might hit the market. “It could be out this year,” Wozniak says.
So basically, Wozniak is trying to make a complicated set of technologies accessible to a broad market. He’s been there before.