February 22, 2022

The Road Towards Standardization: Expert Insights on the Future of Wi-Fi Sensing

Wi-Fi has become inextricable from daily life. But it hasn’t always been like that. Standards and adoption in the Wi-Fi space today took years of research, iteration, and certification. While some key work has already been accomplished, there is still more that must be done for Wi-Fi Sensing to continue along the road to standardization. But what exactly is it going to take for Wi-Fi Sensing to become fully standardized and adopted in the mass-market? As ubiquitous as Wi-Fi is for communications, so too will Wi-Fi Sensing be for the modern home and beyond. But to pave the road for such a future, core standards must be developed to innovate and unify.

Standardized Wi-Fi Sensing by 2024

The story of Wi-Fi Sensing began about a decade ago with the publication of key academic research. Back then, utilizing Wi-Fi signals for more than device communications was just a concept. This work was largely enabled by specialized research systems. With hardware too expensive to sell as a consumer Wi-Fi product, Wi-Fi Sensing remained largely in the academic space. Some work also began to utilize either unofficial third-party firmware patches or vendor-released research tools, which were specific to a small subset of consumer Wi-Fi chipsets. During this time, it was difficult to get access to all the information necessary to develop a successful Wi-Fi Sensing product.

To Each Vendor Their Own

To facilitate mass adoption of Wi-Fi Sensing, there needs to be an effective transition from academic research to industry integration and application. Not only did it require proven commercial potential, key industry growth and scalability, it also needed to be a part of mainstream Wi-Fi chipsets. But this big step from conceptualization to execution requires proven commercial potential and key industry partnerships for growth and scalability.

Cognitive was founded out of the desire to build a powerful but low-cost and easily scalable device that could leverage insights about changes in radiofrequency signals. That, however, would require us to design our own chip: the R10. The core advantage of the R10 was that it was mostly software-based in its interface with RF signals and so could be used for many different applications, simply by writing new software. By accessing channel state information not typically exposed in commercial chipsets, we were able to develop and refine our motion detection algorithms and build our consumer proof-of-concept product, Aura Home, the first solution of its kind in market which launched December 2017 and sold through Amazon. However, for the technology to be successful alongside pre-existing W-iFi chips, we knew we would have to partner with key chipset companies like QualcommBroadcomOnsemi, and MaxLinear. But through this experience, it became apparent that without a standard, each vendor would implement things in a slightly different way, presenting a core challenge and requiring significant time and resources to design a technology capable of operating with all the different possible implementations. Standardization is important to enable vendor compliance and ensure compatibility among different vendors. Service and technology providers rely on utilizing a fixed set of features to efficiently and reliably provide their solutions. This is where Wi-Fi Sensing standardization comes in, bringing all industry experts together to discuss and establish a baseline of key processes.

These efforts towards standardization will also have a noticeable positive impact on customers. With the development of new features and capabilities for Wi-Fi Sensing, ISPs can deliver innovative consumer products to increase customer satisfaction through motion insights and analytics. Standardization is also extremely important to consumers because they want confidence that all the different products they purchase will simply work together and behave as expected. The 802.11bf standard is especially important for consumers as it opens up the possibility of endless potential applications in the home by using common devices instead of expensive, dedicated motion sensing hardware. Wi-Fi is what it is today because there has been a standard or blueprint that describes exactly how anybody can build the components necessary to interact and function with the rest of the network. For Wi-Fi Sensing to achieve its true market penetration potential, this blueprint needs to first be developed. Additionally, each product that receives the Wi-Fi logo and stamp must go through the certification program run by the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA). Consumers look for that logo and stamp as a sign that the product not only has been designed with the IEEE 802.11 standard in mind, but has also gone through compliance testing.

How WiFi Motion is Leading the Journey

Innovation requires continuous, dedicated effort with the investment of key industry partners to see mass adoption and scalability — Cognitive’s WiFi Motion entered the market February 2020 as a camera-free home monitoring solution and is now available from 79 ISPs in over 65 countries. As Wi-Fi Sensing continues along its journey, standardization will be the catalyst for endless new advanced features and services that redefine how the world uses Wi-Fi. But the road doesn’t end there. Wi-Fi Sensing needs companies like Cognitive with the technological, artificial intelligence, and algorithms expertise to create a robust network to provide faster adoption and greater accessibility. ISPs around the globe are already leveraging WiFi Motion to introduce their customers to the unlimited possibilities of Wi-Fi Sensing. By joining WiFi Motion’s journey early, these companies are uniquely positioned to take advantage of new features as standards are developed. Only through collaboration will Wi-Fi Sensing become a robust option for every wireless network and allow WiFi Motion to grow into a foundational ecosystem for Wi-Fi Sensing.

The Road Ahead Is Clear: A Bright Future for Wi-Fi Sensing

While the road to standardization can often seem nebulous, there are some key steps that aid the process in setting up a timeframe. The first step is to get interested people together to develop a standard. This was officially achieved when IEEE 802.11’s TGbf formed in October 2020. The next step is to develop the standard, which TGbf is currently working on, where the first draft is targeted to be released in March 2022. As per the IEEE process, the entire standard work being performed by TGbf is expected to be fully completed by September 2024. Once there is a written standard, a certification program is required to ensure all different vendor implementations are compliant with the standard. This will be completed by the Wi-Fi Alliance as a parallel branch. Finally, it will take time for certified products to make their way into the hands of consumers, – but once they do, Cognitive’s technology will be ready to leverage the latest capabilities.

Through our involvement with these associations, we have gained a vast amount of knowledge as to what is necessary to build a successful sensing system. We also have a deeper understanding of some of the technological limitations that the current state of sensing presents. We want to continue to contribute to this field, encourage collaboration, and ultimately ensure there are tools available to help push the limits of Wi-Fi even further in the future. Standardization is a naturally slow process but crucial for building a strong foundation for Wi-Fi Sensing and future Wi-Fi-based services. Cognitive wants to make sure that the standards being created not only have a complete feature set for modern challenges but are also positioned to gain widespread adoption in the future.

The Major Players in Wi-Fi Sensing Standardization

The work towards standardization is ultimately a collaborative process only possible through the combined expertise of various organizations, companies, and individuals invested in the future of Wi-Fi. There are three key players in this space: IEEE 802.11 Task Group bf (TGbf), the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), and the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA).

At the IEEE level, 802.11 is a group that owns, maintains, and develops the medium access control (MAC) and physical layer (PHY) specifications for Wi-Fi. The MAC and PHY layer specs describe features, capabilities, and mechanisms that govern the operation of the lowest layers. Further, TGbf will produce an amendment to existing 802.11 standards that will ultimately build upon what already exists to enhance Wi-Fi Sensing. It is important to understand that TGbF is an amendment, not a complete redesign of what already exists. In fact, within the scope of the TGbf project, there will not be any PHY layer changes or modifications for sub-7 GHz operation or descriptions. By utilizing IoT devices already connected to a home’s native network, a larger motion sensing coverage area can be created without requiring additional traditional security devices that might be more intrusive.

The WFA, on the other hand, works with specifications developed by the IEEE to create and test a certification program to ensure each implementation conforms to the standard. Components that pass all the defined tests and conform to the required standards receive the trademark Wi-Fi logo and can be marketed and sold as such. The process of certification is extremely important as it quickly establishes trust with vendors, providing confidence that all due diligence has been performed. Specifically, for consumers, that means that they can feel confident in taking home a certain product that has passed specific levels of testing.

Finally, the WBA consists of a group of network operators and technology innovators who want to offer their customers seamless connectivity (i.e., allowing roaming between partner networks, billing exchanges, etc.). Utilizing their collective industry and research expertise, this group is focused on enhancing services, applications, connectivity, and customer experiences. Cognitive first got involved with the WBA when we were looking for the right platform to develop our technology that would benefit its members through various working groups. At the time, the WBA was the perfect fit, as they had a large network operator base and a number of technology providers. Together, we established the Wi-Fi Sensing Group, where we have been working to help not only introduce the technology, but also raise awareness of its current and future capabilities, and ultimately help with getting people ready for adoption. Part of the group’s work has also been helping publish Wi-Fi Sensing focused whitepapers, which highlights technological gaps that with standard support could further improve the technology. To date, the WBA has published three whitepapers in order to advance the field and stimulate critical thought around the technology. Topics include recommendations for early adoption of Wi-Fi Sensinghow to evaluate a Wi-Fi Sensing system, and factors that can impact the performance of a Wi-Fi Sensing system (will be publicly available in spring 2022).