Vocera pins Wi-Fi to collars

The company is selling wearable Wi-Fi gear that it envisions will replace bulky handsets in large stores, warehouses and hospitals.

Vocera Communications has begun selling a wireless telephone system that replaces bulky handsets with badges pinned to shirt collars, the company said Monday.

Vocera's telephone system, which it announced in June, is a new breed of phone network that uses Wi-Fi, a wireless networking standard that creates 300-foot zones of wireless connectivity. Because of Wi-Fi's short range, Vocera thinks its equipment will be used to replace intercom networks in warehouse or hospitals.

Wi-Fi-based phone systems from companies such as SpectraLink have been on sale for years, but most involve bulky handsets that weigh more than a pound each. The Vocera badge is 3.5 ounces, light enough to pin to a shirt or shirt collar, according to records on file with the Federal Communications Commission.

The badges also have something new for Wi-Fi phones: They are voice activated, according to the product's user manual. The badge has a built-in microphone designed to "hear" commands from no more than 12 inches away, so conversation across a room about "calling John," for example, won't start the badge dialing, according to Vocera.

One of the first customers for the Vocera equipment is the chain store Target, which is outfitting its retail outlets with a Vocera system for employees to use, a Vocera representative said. The representative did not disclose names of its other customers.

The price of the system varies depending on the number of employees that will use it. For example, Vocera charges $70,000 for a system that would outfit 150 employees. The product includes the badges plus software that connects the Wi-Fi network that the badges use to a landline system.

Wi-Fi has gone wearable as manufacturers try to find new things for these wireless networks to do. They are now in an estimated 6 million to 8 million homes and offices and do one thing only: shuttle information from one place to the next. Wi-Fi needs to do more if it's going to stay alive, wireless executives say.

Like Vocera, other companies are focusing on merging telephone networks with Wi-Fi's ability to deliver data over short ranges.

For example, Internet Home Alliance (IHA), a non-profit home networking research company, is working on a system that would let a car pulling into the driveway automatically arm or disarm a home's security system, turn lights on or off in the home, or adjust its thermostat. Companies participating in the development include General Motors, security firm ADT, and Panasonic.