Business » Innovation

Covering your Assets

Tracking and control tech smart-grids your life


A couple of guys are sitting down to watch a much anticipated football game. The TV--a glorious 40-inch plasma affair--is being paid for in installments to a rent-to-own company, but the happy host has ignored a few weeks of late-payment notices.

Back at the rental company's headquarters, a beacon pinpointing the offending TV flashes on a computer screen in the payment department. A mouse click activates the tracking and control device secretly installed on the boob tube, and the screen goes dark.

Rental payment scofflaw and his football-watchin' buddies: 0. The future of remote asset management: 1.

Tough times have kept the $6.8 billion rent-to-own industry healthy, as credit-crunched consumers seek out alternatives to buying new stuff outright. Industry experts estimate as many as 3 million households a year take advantage of RTOs, which do business at about 8,500 stores nationwide.

That means RTO companies have to keep track of a massive amount of merchandise--from TVs and washing machines, to refrigerators and furniture. And while most customers simply return an item if they can't continue making payments, some inevitably try to hang onto the item despite their failure to pay.

That's when someone has to be dispatched for the unpleasant job of collections. That's also where the growing field of remote asset management may soon come in.

"It all started a couple of years ago, back when I'd actually seen a friend of mine who was working for a company called Rent-A-Center running around trying to get payments from people. He'd be pissed off and mad and upset at the fact that the customers thought he was such a bad guy," said Todd Kleperis, president of IContain, a company working on a suite of monitoring and control devices for a host of markets, including rent-to-owns. Though headquartered in China, IContain runs its IT operations out of Boise.

Another conversation with an employee of Aaron's--a competing RTO­­--cemented the idea for IContain's device.

"I asked him, 'Wouldn't it be kind of cool if you guys had a device that would either go inside or outside [an item] that would just turn these things off when people don't pay their bills?' The guy looked at me and he goes, 'We've got that for our laptops, but we don't have it for anything else,'" Kleperis said. "What they have is a software-based solution that really doesn't work for hardware because once you turn off or get rid of the software, the thing's toast."

IContain's product is a combination hardware-software system. A small device is attached to the item, whether it's a TV or a fridge or a washing machine, and it starts transmitting a signal via cellular and GPS channels. The signal shows two things: where the item is located, and whether it's turned on or off. Represented by a blinking red dot, the signal is monitored through a specially designed website and one click in the software interface can enable or disable the item's function.

Testing with an RTO in Florida has shown promising results, according to Kleperis.

"Out of nine delinquent customers, eight called the next day after the device shut [their item] off," he said. "The next guy brought the TV back and said it's broken."

If this all sounds somewhat familiar, Boise area tech watchers might know Kleperis from the now-defunct firm Sky Detective, which made wireless GPS-enabled tracking modules for the law enforcement and shipping markets. Sky Detective earned itself some buzz a few years back for its work with the Nepalese government, which wanted to use the company's technology to track various shipments across the Himalayas. It was also one of a handful of companies profiled in an October 2008 New York Times article on Idaho's growing high-tech sector.

But after Sky Detective folded on funding issues a year or so ago, Kleperis up and moved to Shenzhen, China, where IContain is based. One day he'd like to bring the company's HQ to the City of Trees, but joked that "we haven't gotten the right proposal yet from Butch."

In the meantime, IContain is breaking new ground with its RTO-oriented remote management systems and has its eye on expanding into other markets.

"This technology allows a person or business to control the functionality of their property directly," said Jared Tippetts, who manages IContain's back-end operations from Boise. "The fact that this is done over the Internet and through cellular channels allows this to be accomplished from anywhere, achieving a greater level of control and flexibility than any other system in place to date."

Other applications lie in the consumer space--imagine being able to use your iPhone to turn off your home coffee pot--and in the health-care sector. Specifically, Kleperis said, a version of IContain's remote management system could be worn or sewn into clothing to keep track of Alzheimer's patients, rest home residents or people with autism.

"That wearable technology then talks to our existing devices inside a person's home, so now you have a footprint," he said.

Using that footprint, a user could see whether an elderly father or mother has wandered out of the house and left the stove or dishwasher on, for instance. Likewise, the technology could be used to quickly locate lost hikers, bikers or backcountry skiers and, Kleperis said, the system could dramatically cut down on theft.

Still, Kleperis recognizes that the idea of remote controlling your--or someone else's--life can seem a little 1984-ish. But, "in some respects you want it Orwellian," he said. "If it's your mom who has a certain level of dementia, or if you're a runner and you're out on some mountainside and you get lost, maybe you opt in for that kind of thing."

Besides, Kleperis added, we're already being tracked by our cell phones, Internet use, security cameras--you name it. What IContain does is give users a measure of control over their lives.

"I want to create the smart grid for your home," he said. "I think, really, we're down that path already, and we're hitting the right segment at the right time."