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.

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!

BYOD RTLS

While the terms bring your own device (BYOD), coined when employees started bringing their own phones and laptops to the office, and real-time location systems (RTLS), coined when RFID tags started to be tracked, may be unfamiliar to many, together, these concepts promise to have an impact that will soon become familiar to us all in our daily lives.

Chances are, you already BYOD when you’re out-of-home (OOH), simply by carrying your iPhone, Fitbit or Tile in public. And, perhaps surprisingly, that very phenomenon is the catalyst for a global sensor infrastructure that is enabling computers to understand the real-world in real-time. Yes, those devices you’re “bringing” can be located in real-time — and in this post we’ll do our best to convince you to be optimistic about the impact!

Today, BYOD RTLS is enabling anonymous audience measurement to improve customer experiences. And, the mass production of consumer devices has made radio chips so inexpensive and ubiquitous as to catalyse classic RTLS applications in industry, a cornerstone of the fourth industrial revolution. Before long everything will be radio-identifiable, extending the Uber and AirBnB phenomena to everyday commodities in the pervasive sharing economy. Here’s how and why.

Audience Measurement

When are people passing by?   What proportion pass through the door?   What are the most common journeys inside my venue?   Where do people spend the most time?   How much time?

These are the questions that a BYOD RTLS can answer, and our Pareto platform today provides those answers to retailers and OOH operators. By listening for Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals, it is possible to respect the preferences of the end user who can:

  • turn off Bluetooth and avoid detection
  • be anonymously identified when Bluetooth is enabled
  • be uniquely identified with an explicit opt-in (see our previous post)

What does anonymously mean? At best we can segment by device type, as you can see in the image below and live on our website.

Advertising devices as detected by Pareto today

Brick-and-mortar retail knows it needs to compete on customer experience, and by answering the above questions — in a way that respects their customers’ individual preferences — the benefits extend right back to those very customers.

Classic RTLS without Vendor Lock-In

Where are my assets?   Where do they spend the most time?   How is work-in-progress moving through my space?   Where and when are there bottlenecks?

These are the questions that RTLS has been answering for two decades, albeit with sparse adoption in industry. The BYOD phenomenon is set to change that. Today a systems integrator — or even the industrial/commercial client themselves — can put in place a RTLS using:

  • BLE readers from a variety of vendors (ex: our reelceivers)
  • inexpensive Bluetooth beacons from countless vendors
  • middleware from a variety of vendors (ex: our open-source or Pareto)

When we founded reelyActive in 2012, we had to develop our own proprietary readers and tags. But merely a year later we were among the first to embrace BYOD RTLS when BLE seemed poised to revolutionise the industry by providing a global radio standard. The ability for any company to answer the above questions is far more valuable than pushing a proprietary platform, and all parties, especially the end-customers, benefit from the resulting massive gain in efficiencies.

The fourth industrial revolution is all about efficiency, and industries know they need RTLS to remain competitive. Fortunately it turns out that tracking in-store customer journeys and work-in-progress on a shop floor amount to essentially the same thing — how about that for efficiency!

The Pervasive Sharing Economy

Where is the nearest available bicycle?   What tools are available nearby?   Who can come and help me right now?   Clothing-as-a-Service???

These are the questions that soon we’ll not think twice about asking, expecting not only to receive an answer, but in fact the optimal answer. Already billions of products with an embedded BLE radio are shipping annually, and at least an order of magnitude more are shipping with a standardised UHF passive RFID tag (see RAIN RFID). Before long it will be commonplace for everyday products to be radio-identifiable in everyday situations, driving The Pervasive Sharing Economy where the “Uber for power tools”, the “AirBnB for storage”, and yes, even Clothing-as-a-Service, can finally thrive.

Indeed, everything becoming a shareable resource is the embodiment of our vision of ubiquitous machine-contextual-awareness at the service of humanity and is the reason we at reelyActive created open projects such as advlib and Sniffypedia to hasten this revolution. But already today, in the form of anonymous audience measurement and classic industrial applications, BYOD RTLS is making a significant impact which, we hope you’ll agree, has pertinent applications today and enormous positive potential over the long term.

A remarkaBLE week in Bluetooth

The headlines:

  • 01 12 16 — HID Global Acquires Bluvision to Expand With Bluetooth Solutions for the Enterprise Internet of Things Market (press release)
  • 05 12 16 — Gimbal is Joining The Mobile Majority (press release)
  • 07 12 16 — Bluetooth 5 Now Available (press release)

It’s not every week that you see two companies in your competitive landscape acquired, in addition to the first major evolution of the standard on which your core technology is based! Amidst everything else that’s happened in 2016, perhaps we’re the only ones to remark this remarkaBLE coincidence, but it’s certainly not without significance!

In 2012, when we started reelyActive, our expected exit was an enterprise acquisition: build a better real-time location system (RTLS), raise the right eyebrows, combine agile innovation with access to the right resources. It would appear that Bluvision have done just that, which is commendable given the track record of outcomes for RTLS companies (our co-founders cut their teeth at one which inevitably failed!)

Over the past few months, we’ve shifted our immediate focus to the out-of-home (OOH) market which has a pressing need to reach and engage individuals in the real-world, in real-time, and in context (all the while measuring the results). It would appear that Gimbal and The Mobile Majority have come together to do just that for mobile advertising.

What makes this week’s coincidence so striking to us?

Where Gimbal and The Mobile Majority are headed, we’re taking our novel Bluetooth RTLS technology, like that of Bluvision.

When Bluvision CEO Jimmy Buchheim showed us his BluFi prototype in 2014, we knew we weren’t alone in developing “bring-your-own-device” (BYOD) RTLS technology allowing any Bluetooth Low Energy device, including the ones we carry and wear, to be identified and tracked throughout a space. This is the inverse (literally!) of what Gimbal and almost every other mobile-focused company is doing today with beacons.

But what about the future? To us, advertising is backwards, as much for brands as for Bluetooth packets! Which brings us to Bluetooth 5.

With 4x range, 2x speed and 8x broadcasting message capacity, the enhancements of Bluetooth 5 focus on increasing the functionality of Bluetooth for the IoT.

While the Bluetooth SIG are advertising (pun intended) the above features as key to the future of IoT, what’s key to us is that Bluetooth 5 hasn’t upset the existing wireless advertising functionality (which, for us, makes it the undisputed global standard for Active RFID). This means that the growing billions of people, products and places with Bluetooth radios will retain the possibility of being discoverable on a human scale, advertising what they want, when they want and with whom they want.

Our mission is to unlock the value of the data [they] choose to share.

And the week’s events have emboldened us on that mission, affirming the value of BYOD RTLS and of reaching audiences in the real-world, while protecting and extending the wireless standard which makes our vision a reality.