Jiani Zeng and Honghao Deng, Butlr: “Trust should be earned by securing privacy at a hardware-level”

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the use of artificial intelligence in the Internet of Things (AIoT) has become essential.

AIoT has enabled devices to be connected to the internet and to each other, providing a platform for data collection, analytics, and automation. These developments have enabled us to create smarter, more efficient networks that can respond to data in real time. This has increased efficiency and safety in many industries, such as healthcare and transportation.

To shed light on this emerging technology, we reached out to Jiani Zeng and Honghao Deng, co-founders of Butlr – a pioneering AIoT and real-time occupancy analytics platform that has the potential to transform the way we engage with the world.

Let’s go back to the very beginning of Butlr. What has the journey been like?

"Exciting" would be an understatement. The thrill of building something new and seeing it out in the world is unparalleled. Today, we are at a secure and productive stage, but of course, it has not always been like that. We started working on our technology in 2019, and then the pandemic hit, which brought tremendous uncertainty to the entire world.

This was a definitive moment, and we decided to build a tool that would answer this uncertainty with security, clarity, and real spatial intelligence. We are here today because we are a team that perseveres, something we have deeply ingrained in our culture.

Can you introduce us to your People Sensing platform? What features make it stand out from the crowd?

The Butlr People Sensing Platform uses thermal sensing technology with AI to translate body heat into human presence and activity, offering valuable spatial insights to clients. Think of Google Analytics but for actual buildings. Customers choose us for 3 primary reasons:

  • It’s fully anonymous. Heatic Sensors utilize low-res thermal data (<100 non-RGB pixels) to track people's movement without collecting personal information. Butlr's patented system and ML algorithm enable accurate tracking while ensuring privacy, unlike optical technologies (camera solutions) that may capture identities.
  • It’s affordable. Wireless thermal sensors can be 1/10 the cost of legacy alternatives
  • It’s API-first. We are dedicated to offering a seamless and intuitive API experience, empowering our users to choose how they interact with the information gathered by our system.

What are the most common issues organizations run into nowadays when managing their workplace?

Several, to be honest. To begin with, it is very difficult to get a good sense of how much space you actually need given all the hybrid work policies currently in place, as well as the type of space given how people work today. Do you need desks, phone booths, or soft seating, and in what ratios? Badge data is inaccurate and not granular enough, and simple manual observations are expensive and don’t give an accurate picture.

Even if your primary focus is not to optimize your real estate budget (but why wouldn't it be these days?), one of the most common issues we hear about is chaotic desk sharing and room booking processes. No-shows, ghost meetings, double-booked desks - if you do not have a way to confirm the actual presence or lack of it in real-time and update the digital systems accordingly, then you are just asking for your workforce to hate the office experience.

Frustrated employees, or simply employees who spend their time trying to solve mundane stuff like trying to reserve a room for an urgent call, are a direct hit to productivity, both short and long-term.

How did the recent global events affect your industry? Did you add any new features as a result?

We believe that flexibility and clarity are the only real answers to uncertainty, and this is exactly what we are building: a truly flexible technology that provides clarity. Now is definitely not the time to over-lease or, on the opposite side of the spectrum, radically cut down square footage in panic and turn your still-expensive office into a serious productivity blocker for your workforce.

This is why we are taking our platform a step further, introducing Heatic 2, a sensor with almost double the coverage, so you need half the time to install your system and almost half the sensors. We have also introduced software features that give even more control to our users, such as Zones and Device Management.

What myths and misconceptions surrounding smart spaces do you notice most often? What do you think they are based on?

There is this misconception that smart spaces are very intrusive, privacy-wise. This idea exists out there for a good reason: in the field of occupancy sensing, IoT technologies have repeatedly claimed to be private, but in reality, they only have policies that prohibit them from sharing captured visual data, which is very sensitive information.

The company expects you to trust them blindly. We believe that trust should be earned by providing hardware-level anonymous technology that truly respects customer privacy, followed by encryption and security policies as a natural part of the process. Anonymity is an essential feature of our technology's design. There are no cameras, no fine print.

What do you think the average workplace is going to look like in the next few years?

The collective epiphany we had after the pandemic was not just that we can work from home, but that offices are much more than just spaces to execute tasks. They are deeply social spaces where people connect, form bonds, and grow together through creativity and achievement.

We believe these are the aspects that we will see enhanced and amplified in the future, both in the way companies build their culture and in how they imprint on their spaces.

What other aspects of our lives do you hope to see enhanced by technology in the near future?

One sector that has historically lacked exposure to the benefits of cutting-edge technology is senior living. Aging gracefully in the place of one's choice is a fundamental right that is heavily respected in some countries and cultures around the world.

This is a matter that is very close to our hearts at Butlr, and we are already working with senior care facilities worldwide to find ways in which our occupancy sensing solution can benefit our senior population.

In this age of ever-evolving technology, what do you think are the key security measures organizations should implement?

For starters, we believe that even non-EU countries should comply with the GDPR guidelines; it is a very thorough set of measures that ensures individuals' privacy and their right to their own data are respected.

Adopting thorough encryption methodologies and multi-factor authentication protocols is also critical to ensuring security. Organizations should also ensure that all software is regularly updated and that staff members are trained in cybersecurity best practices.

Would you like to share what’s next for Butlr?

We are on a mission to build the nerve cells of the built environment, and this task requires a lot of ingenuity and creative engineering. This is true not only in solving issues but also, perhaps most importantly, in identifying the less obvious ones.

Each new platform generation is a combination of planned upgrades and the development of creative ideas that arise during the process. What is certain, however, is that we will keep pushing the boundaries of what a flexible, anonymous, and scalable occupancy sensing solution can be for the future of our spaces.

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