Digital avatars in meatspace, and the absence thereof

Your mobile phone prompts you with an alert. You excuse yourself from your physical context to enter the digital realm. Is it a relief to escape to cyberspace or rather a nuisance to leave “meatspace”?

If you were born in the 20th century, you almost certainly recall the absence of a digital realm. At best a landline telephone might have transported you to a far away physical place to communicate with another human through the natural medium of voice. Like it or not, you once had to find comfort in meatspace — it’s all there was!

If you were born in the 21st century, you might not be able to fathom the absence of a digital realm. In fact you might not be able to fathom the absence of your digital self:  the avatar that emerged in cyberspace through countless interactions with the web and social media. Your generation was the first to grow up with a choice of realms in which to find comfort.

So, is it a relief when your mobile phone interrupts to invite you to join your digital self online? Regardless of your age, cyberspace has become quite comfortable, no? The online places that you visit know you and they treat you just the way you like. Of course they would: your avatar is unforgettable! It represents the very best of “you” and perhaps even more!

Now imagine instead that the notification on your mobile phone read as follows:

Would you like to invite your digital self to join you here?

How interesting would it be to have your avatar at your side right right now? Might your avatar select the perfect song to play next on the stereo by comparing its recent playlists with those of nearby avatars? Might your avatar cheekily post a recent tweet or Instagram pic of yours as graffiti on the next digital display you pass? Might the presence of your mighty avatar, the emergent ideal self, make you feel superhuman in your own skin?

Should it not be as fun to invite your avatar to meatspace as it has been for them to invite you to cyberspace? (as they so often do!)

Ironically, as we recently argued, such invitations may be postponed by reticence on the part of the companies that benefit so handsomely from our continued comfort in cyberspace! But one can only delay the inevitable so long…

Imagine the legacy of the Internet of Things generation: a baby born today may never be able to fathom the absence of digital avatars in meatspace!

Hears Presence

We are becoming cyborgs. We carry smartphones and we wear wearables to enhance our human abilities. It’s not difficult to argue that these have become extensions of ourselves figuratively, if not yet literally. Nor is it difficult to argue that today we still adapt ourselves to interact through our technology rather than the other way around.

What if we could adapt the interactions of our technology to a medium we ourselves naturally sense?

Présences Périphériques, an art installation by Evelyne Drouin (DJ Mini) and reelyActive co-founder and CEO Jeffrey Dungen, exhibited at Centre Clark through February 17th, 2018, does just that. Put on a set of headphones and relax to the sounds of our smartphones and wearables advertising their presence to one another and to their surroundings. Observe the installation “breathing” faster as this chatter increases, and brighter — the speakers are retrofitted with Philips Hue lightbulbs — as you approach with your smartphone or wearable.

Hear the Artist Talk, not as human voices, but rather as those of the devices present:

Hear the artists and their devices simultaneously, and observe the installation “breathing”:

Listen. We are becoming cyborgs. Today we humans can announce our machine-presence with a $5 retrofit, and make our entire machine-story available to anyone, anyplace or anything nearby who chooses to listen.

Who chooses to listen hears the future.

Real-time location finds some promising predictions for 2018

The Local Search Association‘s tradition of publishing expert predictions for the New Year is something we look forward to at the start of the year, and we’re excited about what the experts have to say about real-time location in 2018.

Beginning with user data, Foursquare‘s Steven Rosenblatt predicts:

marketers will turn their focus towards data quality and hold their data partners and providers to higher standards and increased transparency to ensure fresh, first-party (opted-in) data that drives meaningful consumer engagement and better business results.

Our 2017 LSA prediction concerning opt-in turned out to be overly optimistic, and, as we argue in our previous blog post, the major platforms seem reticent to create real-world opt-in capabilities. However, we’ve long argued that individuals will gladly opt-in and share relevant data in exchange for something of real value to them, and would be very pleased to see a surge in such opt-in opportunities in 2018.

Of course, data quality isn’t only about the user: what about the location itself? Reveal Mobile‘s Brian Handly argues:

This doesn’t just mean accuracy of the location data, but also the accuracy of the points of interest that location data is matched against.

Indeed, we too think this will become a key focus in 2018, as we ourselves predicted (on page 64) that retailers will begin to model their physical operations after their established e-commerce practices, by associating each physical point of interest with its online equivalent: the corresponding product/category webpage. In other words, physical browsing behaviour will be measured and analysed exactly as online browsing behaviour, using the latter’s established set of tools.

Measure the real world like the web

And how will the distribution of such high-quality data take place in 2018? Thinknear‘s Brett Kohn argues:

The emergence of data marketplaces, improved transparency, and the desire of app publishers to monetize through data rather than ads is driving a wave of data streams into the market.

The emergence and acceptance of data marketplaces will be critical for the widespread adoption of real-time location capabilities. And standards for both first-party data and semantic location data (points of interest) will be essential for such marketplaces to extend seamlessly to applications beyond advertising and retail, as Ubimo‘s Gilad Amitai predicts:

We will also see an acceleration in the usage of real time location intelligence technology and data outside of MarTech in areas such as real-estate, city planning and social studies.

That’s consistent with our observations: real-estate and the smart workplace are driving our business this year while there’s enormous potential for smart cities on the horizon.

It’s refreshing to kick off 2018 with such promising predictions for real-time location, with all the key ingredients potentially and potently mixing together: user opt-in, unified semantic location and marketplace data distribution to serve diverse applications which extend far beyond advertising!

$500 rectangle meet $5 rectangle

We started 2017 by (optimistically) predicting that a major social network would empower their users to “advertise” their profile to specific physical places they visit. In other words:

We expected 2017 to be the dawn of seamless PHYSICAL social networking.

We had high hopes for Snap when this year we observed their Spectacles transmitting uniquely-identifiable Bluetooth “advertising” packets. Would Snap equip hip venues to recognise their young, uninhibited, Spectacled users, deliver them unforgettable, personalised real-world experiences, and make rivals Facebook look even more like a boring platform for their parents?   No.

How about Facebook? We caught up with them at Place Conference again this year where they shared how they had reached 2 billion monthly active users, and how 1 in 10 people open their app while in retail stores. Wow! Would Facebook swoop in as brick-and-mortar retail’s sole saviour by sharing their view of the customer, detected in-store via the Facebook app? How about if we shared with them the exact technical blueprints to make it happen?   No.

How about Google? In February, we updated our own reelyApp to show how Google’s Physical Web could let users “advertise” themselves to their surroundings in a web-standard format. When running the app, people would approach us and curiously inquire “how did your profile get on my phone?” Would Google leverage their popular browser, mobile OS and understanding of the user to make browsing the “Physical Web” as seamless as browsing online?   No.

We even asked Scott Jenson (then) director of the Physical Web, at Bluetooth World 2017, about this powerful feature to which he replied that “it’s not intended for the average person to advertise themselves.” Indeed, while Google will let you do it, they don’t want you to (does that qualify as permissionless innovation?) and the fragmented Android hardware results in inconsistent Bluetooth behaviour. Apple on the other hand can boast about their devices’ Bluetooth stability, but severely restricts what a mobile application can actually transmit (the Eddystone packets of the Physical Web are a definite no-no).

Why do we continue to put up with paying $500 for rectangles that impede the potential of physical social networking?

Seriously. Since our pioneering technology demo in 2013 and the subsequent GigaOM article that highlighted the potential, aside from several retail and smart office apps we developed with our partners, we haven’t identified a single major mobile application that enables the recognition of its users on a human scale, in the real world. It’s as if Apple and Google don’t want this to happen — and perhaps, sadly, that is the most logical conclusion.

Why buy a $500 rectangle when a $5 rectangle can do the job?

2017 was a big year for the post-mobile, $5 rectangle future:

  1. the $5 beacons exist in rectangular (and other) form factors, are now reliable, and can be reliably sourced
  2. a growing family of such beacons can have their behaviour programmed by even a non-technical person through a web browser (see puckyActive)
  3. a ubiquitous in-building infrastructure to “hear” these beacons has seen the light

In less-technical terms, that means you can buy and wear/carry a tiny $5 device whenever you’d like to be automatically recognised by a physical space. That could be in your smart workplace which assists you to perform your work more efficiently (our top application today). That could be at a smart venue which assists you to physically network like a boss while your mobile remains tucked away in your pocket. In time, every space will have the ability to recognise its occupants who choose if/what they’d like to share. Are we perhaps approaching peak-mobile?

Those who remember reelyActive in 2012 undoubtedly remember our live directory where your physical presence in a venue was indicated on an ambient display. In anticipation of what’s to come, we’ve now revived and revamped the Live Directory, as well as introduced other calm visualisations such as Sonar and Raindrops.

Why get your information from a $500 5-inch screen when a 32-inch+ screen is provided by the venue and is free to recognise what should be displayed to you!

We find it difficult not to be optimistic about the future that we’ve already created for ourselves. But to share this future with a broad audience, it seems imperative to first overcome both the entrenched mobile-centric view of the universe and the comfort of incremental change. Not easy, but not impossible.

Imagine, at CES 2019, row upon row of vendors selling custom cases for $5 rectangles. As in Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.

Light hears ahead of its time

Back in 2013 when the Internet of Things was peaking on the hype-cycle — and all too often described using contrived smart home examples — this was perhaps our favourite way to explain the IoT:

You find yourself having to relocate from Montréal to San Francisco, but no sweat. Computers have already identified the things in your home you’ll want to take along. Computers have located and procured replacements near your destination. And what can’t be replaced they will ship there as efficiently as possible. Finally, those items you don’t use, they’ve already posted online for sale. Relax and enjoy your journey!

Far-fetched?   Not if buildings were able to identify and locate their occupants, including the everyday items worth moving or replacing!

This week, the proverbial light bulb just went off (yes, brace for more such puns). Lunera announced the transformation of the LED light bulb.

Lunera Smart T8

Is theirs the first smart light bulb?   No.   How then is this transformative? Lunera’s light bulb is the first that’s smart enough to listen.

Today there are billions of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices occupying the buildings in which we live. These include the laptop on which I’m typing, the smartphone in my pocket, the wearable on my wrist and even the chair on which I’m sitting! All you need to do is listen, which is what our platform does to identify and locate such devices: effectively BYOD RTLS.

Indeed, our own infrastructure has been listening since 2013. We’ve learned a lot since then, patiently waiting for a brilliant solution to the pervasive infrastructure challenge. What’s so exciting today about being a Lunera launch partner is the fact that lighting is the ubiquitous in-building infrastructure. At the flip of a switch, a building can begin to measure the real world like the web.

Kevin Ashton, who coined the term IoT, defined it as:

computers [understanding] the world — without the limitations of human-entered data

Are BLE and smart lighting not building toward that on an unprecedented scale? Is that not the magic behind our example of the transcontinental move? Is that itself not akin to a Pervasive Sharing Economy?   That’s what happens when light hears ahead of its time!

Facebook, it’s time to “share” your view of the customer

At the 2017 Place Conference, on the Rx for Retail panel, Trace Johnson of Total Wine & More eloquently summarised his problem, one faced by so many modern retailers today:

“we need a unified view of our customer”

And while the panel concluded that there is no single vendor that can offer that solution, conference organiser Greg Sterling interjected:

“Facebook is the closest”

Indeed, Facebook, who also presented at the conference, have an unprecedented understanding of their 2 billion monthly active users, and already offer to their business customers arguably the best targeted advertising capability of any platform. And if the audience (or even Facebook themselves!) had any doubt about their presence in brick-and-mortar retail, these fresh stats hammered home the point:

Facebook in Stores

So what’s preventing Facebook from offering retailers a unified view of the customers that walk through their door — as they walk through the door? Not much we’d argue! In addition to having an established relationship with most retailers, they have both the digital view of the customer online and the physical presence of their mobile app in-store. From a technological perspective it’s entirely feasiBLE to connect the two!

Facebook User Identification

The above diagram illustrates how we see Facebook closing the loop. The missing link is essentially the Facebook app “advertising” a real-world cookie using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and the infrastructure to relay back to Facebook the precise real-time location of this cookie, whenever it is detected. With this in place, Facebook could push the retailer not only a unified view of their customer, but one contextually enriched with the on-line and in-store journey. As a result:

Facebook owns the user.   The retailer owns the in-store experience.

It’s important to note that Facebook did try to roll out a beacon infrastructure in 2015 which, unsurprisingly, didn’t work out (another presenter at the conference, TouchTunes, lamented the impossible logistics of maintaining their fleet of tens of thousands of battery-powered beacons). The differences in the scenario we present are the following:

  • Internet-connected mains-powered BLE infrastructure solves this logistics nightmare
  • Facebook doesn’t need to own/manage this infrastructure

At reelyActive, we’ve been selling such infrastructure to small and large businesses for years, and we’re not alone. But the game-changer will be when BLE capabilities are added to smart lighting infrastructure — which is actually happening even faster than we expected!  In short:

infrastructure can no longer be considered a blocker

Facebook can enable — with clear user opt-in, of course — their mobile app to advertise a user identifier in the form of a 128-bit UUID (which is supported by both iOS and Android).

Facebook 128-bit UUID

Any infrastructure in range would detect these BLE packets, and software such as our Pareto SaaS could establish their provenance from the Facebook app from the Public ID. The software can then forward the UUID to Facebook’s API along with the precise location of the receiving infrastructure. Using the Private ID, only Facebook can then look up their user and push any relevant info to the retailer’s back-end, for them to deliver the final in-store experience.

That in-store experience is what brick-and-mortar retail is all about, and we were (again) reminded that 9 out of 10 purchases are still made in-store. But without a unified customer view, how can we expect our local retailers to optimise the experiences accompanying 90% of the purchases we make? Especially when, as Verve’s Walt Geer highlighted, an increasing number of consumers themselves already expect this and won’t hesitate to opt-in for the promise of personalised experiences!

Opt-in for personalisation

Four years ago, when our vision of the future helped us win World’s Best Startup, we wrote Facebook, you might “like” this. Today as that vision is becoming a reality, we might instead say Facebook, it’s time to “share” your view of the customer.   How could that not be good for business?

Creating the next computing industry

How often do you interact with computers in a day? Likely on more occasions than you can count or even recognise! Can you remember a time when you didn’t interact with computers on a daily basis?

We’ve just added to our bibliography The Dream Machine, which recounts in splendid detail the history of interactive computing. It may come as a surprise that the essence of our modern computing paradigm (graphical user interfaces, personal computing, laser printing, Ethernet, …) was in working prototype form by the mid-seventies, the fruit of 5 years of corporate-funded research at Xerox PARC preceded by 8 years of government-funded research across US institutions through ARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office.

The first director of that office, and the central figure in the book, is J.C.R. Licklider. Two years prior to taking that office, “Lick” would publish his vision of Man-Computer Symbiosis, envisaging the tight coupling of human brains and computing machines. Given that reelyActive’s vision can be summarised as computing machines understanding the world without reliance on human brains — arguably an extension of his vision — we asked ourselves what lessons we can learn from the history of interactive computing?

Coincidentally, we’ve had the recent pleasure of interacting with two key figures from the book: Vint Cerf and Alan Kay. Cerf’s three pillars for the IoT and his three-pronged call to action, which we discussed in Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT, resonate even stronger in light of this history. And Kay so eloquently reminded us:

“the goodness of the results is most highly correlated with the goodness of the funding”

Creating a whole new industry, as Kay and his colleagues effectively achieved at PARC, was contingent on good funding served with a good dose of patience: “I’ve never heard of VCs being interested in time frames like that”.

While Kay’s concern is very much consistent with our experiences fundraising as a startup, it is not without exceptions. In our blog post Investing in a Value-First Sharing Economy we highlighted an emerging investment philosophy best described as a two-step process:

  1. create the industry, open to competition
  2. out-execute any competition by leveraging the experience/goodwill gained

Clearly Xerox failed at Step 2 (the book examines this in detail). Incredibly, they’re not even the only textbook case among corporations headquartered in Rochester, NY! Remember Kodak and digital photography? Armed with so many lessons from history, especially concerning the execution of Step 2, would we not again expect good results from good funding, regardless of the funding source?

It has been four decades since the PARC breakthrough. The iPhone has now been around for a decade, today “tightly coupling” (or not!) our primary human-computer interaction through a 5″ screen. It is difficult to argue that this is the culmination of Licklider’s vision, but rather easy to argue that we’re (over)due for the next trillion-dollar computing industry. Goodness! With history as our collective guide, all that seems to be missing is some good funding sprinkled with a pinch of patience!

The next ambitious 5-year plan

To celebrate the five-year anniversary of reelyActive’s incorporation, we compiled the significant milestones of our history. Looking back at our origins, when our mission was to create the first simple and accessible cloud-based active RFID system we were reminded of the problems we were solving in 2012, namely:

A commercially-proven active RFID standard had yet to emerge
– we had to develop and build our own transmitter devices
– we had to develop and build our own receiver infrastructure

Every application was its own silo
– we had to educate clients and partners about the platform model
– we had to develop most applications from scratch

In essence, we were attempting to create both the technology and the market. We were confident about the former, our team benefiting from unparalleled domain experience. The latter, however, was a measured risk. Nonetheless, there was room for optimism thanks to a known, underserved need and to Wibree, the obscure radio protocol that had found itself a home in Bluetooth. Now, fast-forward to today, 2017:

Multiple commercially-proven RFID standards have emerged
– Bluetooth Low Energy became the de facto active standard by 2014
– RAIN RFID became the de facto passive standard almost simultaneously
– tens of billions of such radio-identifiable devices are already deployed!

An ecosystem of complementary technology platforms has emerged
– prospective clients and partners now expect the platform model
– we can forward data to third-party cloud applications in a single click
– smart lighting systems will soon displace our own infrastructure

In essence, the technology and the market now exist. We’re no longer obliged to build and deploy tags, infrastructure and applications. And we’re delighted to leave all that behind us!

Time for the next mission, one that we’ve eagerly awaited all along. It’s time now to make sense of the countless identifiable “things” detected and tracked by a heterogeneous mix of infrastructure generating unparalleled real-world contextual awareness that matters to countless applications. In short, to connect what’s going on in the real world right now with everyone who should rightfully know.

While that’s again quite the challenge, it’s certainly one that we look forward to looking back upon in another five years time!

Can you measure real-world behaviour using tools designed for the web?

Google Analytics for the real world.   Several companies have self-identified as such. We ourselves have written a blog post entitled Google Analytics for the Physical World. But what happens when you literally run real-world behaviour data through tools designed for the web?

Notman House Google Analytics

The above screenshot shows what happens when we do exactly that, using Notman House in our native Montréal as the test subject. The dashboard (shared here) was created using Google Data Studio based on data from Google Analytics (GA), industry-standard tools for measuring behaviour on the web. The source data, however, has nothing to do with the web.

Since 2012, we’ve had our infrastructure deployed at Notman House. Each of the orange dots in the above image represents one of our sensors: there are three on each floor, plus one in the café (not shown). These ten sensors detect, among other things, the Bluetooth signals of smartphones and wearables carried by the occupants of the house. Our Pareto SaaS relays this real-time location data to GA.

Steps are clicks

In web parlance, we’ve modelled Notman House as ten web pages with users being not the humans themselves, but rather their Bluetooth-emitting smartphones and wearables.

An obvious shortcoming is the fact that many people keep Bluetooth disabled on their phone, while conversely, an increasing number of people are carrying multiple Bluetooth devices: uniquely counting each human is impractical. But when you’re capturing 1000+ daily sessions, the trends certainly pervade as we’ll now show!

Hourly “occupancy” analytics

Notman hourly analytics

The daily occupancy cycle of Notman House is consistent week over week (dark blue vs. light blue bars), and concentrated between the hours of 8am and 7pm (graph is GMT, hence shifted 5 hours from local time), both of which agree with observation.

Sessions per page

Notman session analytics

User sessions were far more likely to include the Café and the 3rd Floor West, which is consistent with observation as both are event spaces which routinely attract the most occupants.

Sessions by device

Notman device breakdown

Similar to how web analytics can be split into desktop/tablet/mobile and browser type, Bluetooth packets often include information about the device type or brand (see Sniffypedia) which may be correlated with user demographics. Indeed we’ve observed seemingly characteristic device distributions based on region and venue (ex: office/store/school).

The verdict?

Can you measure real-world behaviour using tools designed for the web?   With little effort, using only the basic functionality of GA, we were able to extract the three highlighted metrics, each of which effectively captures the behaviour of occupants of physical spaces. Imagine the potential when leveraging the extensive functionality of tools such as GA.

Imagine as a retailer creating a Data Studio dashboard which compares e-commerce and in-store behaviour side-by-side.

Now imagine the additional granularity and insights when both people and assets are individually identifiable by opting-in with a mobile app or carrying an inexpensive Bluetooth beacon.

Time and again the web has shown that those who measure outperform. Not only can you measure real-world behaviour using the tools of the web, history suggests that, sooner than later, you definitely should!

Fear Not Distribution that Works

We recently attended the inaugural Digital Future of Work Summit at NYU where Michael Chui, Partner at the McKinsey Global Institute emphatically responded to a question saying:

I’m more afraid of income inequality than I am of Skynet!

Two weeks later, we attended the IEEE RFID Conference in Phoenix where Professor Katina Michael equally emphatically responded to a question saying:

I’m afraid that [Skynet] will exacerbate the problem of income inequality!

¡Hasta la vista, middle class! Will that really be the outcome of pervasive computing and the IoT? Because you can argue that we are building the equivalent of Skynet, the collective machine intelligence antagonist in the Terminator film franchise, albeit with the opposite intent — our vision is ubiquitous machine-contextual-awareness at the service of humanity.

What we see instead is the emergence of a Pervasive Sharing Economy which will empower resources, both material and human, to advertise and optimise their utility. And the pioneering spirit of the Internet and its proponents provides cause for optimism, as we argue in our post Vint Cerf and the Good Fight for the IoT.

Ultimately, however, financial interests will determine if and when this vision is realised. That is why we argue for Investing in a Value-First Sharing Economy. Investing in the paradigm of connecting rather than collecting information is perhaps all it takes to reverse our collective fear:

How will we distribute the unprecedented amount of value unlocked through massive gains in efficiency!