The future of mobile indoor location

Since the advent of the iBeacon five years ago, much effort has been spent on real-time location-based experiences through mobile. If today you were to ask “Should I develop a native mobile app?” to anyone who has invested in such efforts, you may well receive an emphatic NO.   In this blog post, we’ll not only explain why, but also what you’ll likely want to use instead: the Web.

The motivation for this blog post stems from a recent presentation to a museum team who shared with us their frustration about their own real-time location-based app experience based on recent changes to Google’s Android mobile operating system. In short, the visitor experience of their museum app has tanked for Android users. This made us think back to our first ever pitch deck back in 2012:

That was before the iBeacon, and our solution, in the case of a museum, was to provide guests with a badge (equivalent to a beacon) and invite them to experience real-time location-based digital content on the Web, either through their own mobile device or a provided tablet. We helped create exactly this experience at the MuseoMix Montréal hackathon in 2014, which participants loved:

But, alas, 2014 was still a time when mobile apps could do no wrong and the Bluetooth beacon was the saviour of indoor location: our approach didn’t stand a chance. Over the past few years, countless venues and companies have invested heavily in beacon-based native mobile apps. There have been some brilliant successes. But most of the veterans we’ve encountered of late have been underwhelmed and battered at best.

What have Google done to beacon-based location in Android?
  — A frustrated colleague, Sept. 2018

And now this latest incident where significant changes to Android caused panic among many of our colleagues, partners and clients! For many, beacon-based mobile location experiences went from passaBLE to terriBLE. Case in point: the museum. What were Google thinking? In a recent post we speculated whether Google might have “something revolutionary up their sleeve”. Could that something be…   …the Web?

Could Google be thinking web-first about mobile indoor location?

One might not be aware, but Google’s Chrome browser has supported Web Bluetooth for some time. For instance, you can program a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) device wirelessly from the browser! Yet surprisingly, Chrome support for the comparatively simple — yet immensely powerful — feature of scanning for all nearby BLE devices has been relegated to the “What’s Next” list for years now.

Is this due to a technical problem?   Doubtful.
Is this due to a business problem?   Likely.   The scan feature would make beacon-based native apps, and all their behind-the-scenes business models, largely irrelevant.

But wait, Google DID just made beacon-based native apps largely irrelevant…

If Google were to suddenly (and unexpectedly!) implement the scan feature in Chrome, by far the world’s most popular mobile browser, what a progressive disruption that would be! Expect a renaissance of web apps on mobile as web developers could easily tailor the JavaScript of existing pages to deliver hyper-localised beacon-based experiences previously reserved for native apps.

If, unfortunately, the scan feature were to remain pending indefinitely (one can check if/when it works here), in most cases today, the most economical and reliable solution nonetheless is that which we initially championed: provide users a $5 beacon-badge for real-time location and retain the mobile device merely as an interface (web or native). $500 rectangle meet $5 rectangle indeed!

And while the astute reader will exclaim “but what about the cost of the Real-Time Location System (RTLS) infrastructure!?!”, we’ve noted of late that a BLE RTLS may well cost considerably less than the development and maintenance of a beacon-based native mobile app! Moreover, a BLE RTLS (like our own) simultaneously supports both the Web Bluetooth and RTLS approaches.

Coming back to Google, our cautious optimism about a potential shift to web-first mobile indoor location stems from the presence of Vint Cerf, their vice-president and Chief Internet Evangelist, who, in 2015, shared the following three-pronged approach to the Internet of Things, which would indeed be consistent with such a strategy:

Regardless of what Google might have up their sleeve, if today you find yourself asking “Should I develop a native app?” to meet a need for mobile indoor location, in most cases the answer is clearly no. You should use the Web. It remains the penultimate “interoperable ecosystem based on open standards”, and no single vendor will be able to do away with it on mobile.

Proximity in its Place

The 2016 Place Conference brought together the brands, retailers, agencies and technology companies pushing the envelope of cross-platform proximity marketing, indoor experiences and location analytics. We feel that organiser Greg Sterling of The LSA, in his introduction, most eloquently summarised in two slides why local matters:

Digital vs. Local

While we spend an increasing amount of time online, we still spend the majority of our money locally, close to work and home. The following is a brief summary of our takeaways from the conference.

Still educating, still adopting

“How many people here have had a real-world beacon experience?”

In a room of a hundred, a mere handful of hands were raised. This hammered home the point that although proximity experiences currently receive all the attention, the reality is that three years after the launch of the iBeacon with iOS 7, and with over 8 million proximity sensors deployed globally today according to Proxbook, the concept is still in its infancy. Instead, it was the presentations on location analytics, a less-glamorous subject, which boasted tangible, measurable results.

Erin Kienast of OMD, who successfully ran such a campaign with McDonald’s, said she spends a lot of time educating local media agencies about the power of location, and how they can use the data. Our experience has been the same. Indeed, while the national agencies may have the edge in education, the local agencies still outweigh them in terms of volume. Education precedes adoption, and a few turnkey solutions certainly wouldn’t hurt either.

We’re not making it easy

“We’re making it really hard for the CMO today” said Pehr Luedtke of Vanassis. “How do the CMOs understand the crazy landscape of location tech?”

Greg Sterling affirmed, “technology companies add complexity beyond what a human operator can be expected to handle.” We know. As a technology company, we’re as guilty of that as any of our peers that were in the room, but we’re working hard to improve. Our approach has been to approach retailers within a partner ecosystem where we master the location technology and our partners individually master the experience, marketing communications, change management, analytics and such. Technology companies should leave end-user-interaction to the experts.

New channel, new offer

“You can’t push the same offer through a digital channel” said Jay Hawkinson of SIM Partners. “You need to make a compelling location-based offer.”

Indeed it doesn’t make sense to make all the effort to meet the customer where they are, only then to serve them up a generic offer. But it certainly does take additional consideration to create the most relevant offer, and marketers need to be prepared. In our retail deployment experience, the impact of even a modestly tailored offer versus a generic offer was orders of magnitude greater. But our partners still had to push to make it happen!

Location accuracy: who cares?

Google doesn’t. Aisle411 does.

Place 2016: Location Accuracy

One can argue that they’re both right. In the case of absolute location, the traditional latitude-longitude measurement, accuracy dictates granularity. And for Aisle411, 30cm is the right granularity. However, in the case of semantic location, championed by both Google and ourselves, all that really matters is what’s nearby to the user. In other words it’s simply relative.

A light bulb just went off

“How many advertisers does it take to change a [connected] LED light bulb?” joked Google’s Frank van Diggelen.

Place 2016: Connected Lighting

Both Philips and Acuity shed light (pun intended) on the fact that one thing is for sure indoors: we’re always near a light. Internet-connected LED lighting overcomes the three challenges faced by location technology:

  1. persistent power
  2. consistent connectivity
  3. necessity of infrastructure

The combination of smartphones and connected lighting promises accurate location via beacons, WiFi, computer vision, magnetics, inertial and visible light communication (VLC). Curiously excluded from the list, however, was Bluetooth as a real-time location system (RTLS), essentially beacons in reverse.

Are people beacons too?

If smartphones act as beacons (as many wearables already do), then connected lighting could identify and locate the people carrying them. We first demonstrated the concept three years ago, using our own connected sensor infrastructure. Last week, to celebrate that anniversary, we proclaimed that The Physical Web just got Personal.

“Can people be considered places? In other words, can a person’s smartphone act as a beacon?” we asked Chandu Thota, Director of Engineering at Google. The answer, as we expected, was no, that’s not how Google sees it. Thota confirmed that we were not alone in advancing applications where the smartphone “advertises” itself to its surroundings. But the company behind Android, Eddystone and The Physical Web (at least) currently sees the smartphone exclusively as a receiver of what is nearby to its user.

Is the industry abusively smartphone-centric?

The smartphone is an incredible innovation which has revolutionised how brands can interact with their customers. Nonetheless, it is easy to argue, as one attendee did, that imagining those customers walking through stores with their eyes glued to their smartphones is downright dangerous! Case in point, this video.

Place 2016: Smartphone-Centricity

What we’ve heard from brick-and-mortar retailers is that they want to emphasise the human experience of shopping, aided by the tools pioneered by online retailers. For us, the smartphone-centric approach is at odds with that vision, instead emphasising the digital experience within a physical context.

Our hope for the next Place Conference is to see case studies of CMO-friendly end-to-end solutions which deliver delightful experiences with tangible results all the while keeping the smartphone in the users pocket to the extent possible. See you there!