Many people are. Unfortunately, the range of indoor location technologies varies widely and there is no silver bullet when it comes to an effective solution for the implementation of location awareness in any venue. It depends.
We often hear from individuals who just learned about one trendy technology and want to use it to do just about everything. Others doubt these technologies because of a disappointing experience in their past. Typically, this disappointment is either result of incorrect expectations or the use of inappropriate technology for a specific implementation.
A few things to consider: the venue, the specific application and the technology options.
The size, structure, density and stability of a venue can have considerable impact on the accuracy and specificity of any location-aware application you deploy.
Large venues, such as office buildings, hospitals, malls, airports or open-air spaces present their own challenges in that they truly are a patchwork of individual spaces, each possibly requiring a different approach.
Each separate space, its shape, height and building materials complicate matters. Large atriums are notoriously harder for many location technologies to deliver good accuracy, as are garden areas or warehouses with very high ceilings. Let alone areas filled with large metal structures, clad in marble, or made of concrete reinforced with steel.
Narrow hallways and doors are best suited for technologies that require choke points. Having lots of solid walls is best for those technologies that require radio signal dampening for optimal performance, while glass walls may be a serious hindrance for them.
Venues rich in ambient radio signals are the best environment for technologies that take advantage of them, and the worst possibly place to deploy even more hardware that broadcasts in the same spectrum. For instance, in places packed with Wi-Fi systems, it might not be advisable to deploy too many devices that compete on the same frequencies, such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons.
There is also the unavoidable fact that people are part of the scenery, moving about the space. Human bodies in motion interfere with ambient radio signals, impacting the effectiveness of some location technologies. For instance, fingerprinting ambient signals at night, when no one is present, will almost certainly produce different results from locating during daytime hours, when the building is crowded.
If the dynamics of the venue change frequently, this is very likely to impact location results over time. For example, it may be harder to maintain a locating system that relies on ambient radio signals in environments where Wi-Fi access points and Bluetooth beacons are moved around or are set up and removed frequently, such as at special events that are torn down within a few days. Also, spaces where large metal displays are frequently repositioned or bulky inventory is repeatedly rearranged may present challenges.
Pedestrian traffic levels are one more variable likely to skew results. Therefore, the right technology must be deployed in each space to adequately deal with the expected level of pedestrian traffic in it.
Note that these factors will not prevent implementation, but will demand greater care and more maintenance, such as more frequent recalibration to maintain the desired levels of accuracy.
Applications of location awareness
As expected, implementations are likely to vary based on the required applications. Here are a few examples.
- Wayfinding throughout a large venue is a basic convenience that can be easily addressed by providing turn-by-turn navigation via a mobile app.
- Branded mobile apps can provide a range of convenience features for shoppers: users may create shopping lists at home and be assisted at the store to find those items, take advantage of promotions, and be reminded of related products located nearby.
- Branded apps may enable speed-buying or leisurely exploration with opportunities for impulse purchases. In addition, apps can contribute to building richer customer profiles.
- Learning about in-store customer behavior can be a source of insights into the effectiveness of store layouts, marketing programs for stores and brands, and staffing plans. Tracking mobile devices’ whereabouts provides the raw data for understanding performance of a single store or an entire chain.
- Delivering coupons and promotions when customers enter a store or a specific aisle can be an effective tool for contextual marketing, with the potential to delight customers with relevant information delivered at the right time and place.
Each one of these applications can be implemented using various technologies.
The choice of location technology will impact accuracy, user experience, performance, mobile platforms supported (iOS, Android), installation and maintenance costs. Here are some examples:
Locating systems that rely on fingerprinting of ambient signals (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) support all OS platforms with accuracy ranging from 2 to 5 meters, depending on signal density, physical environment and quality of the initial site survey. Deployment costs are low on hardware (if any). Users must install and activate an app. Periodic maintenance is needed in dynamic environments. Best for people and asset tracking in large, busy areas; can also support navigation.
- Fingerprinting plus sensor fusion can deliver accuracy as high as one meter. All other factors remain the same as above. Best for turn-by-turn navigation and geofencing.
- Proximity-based applications using BLE hardware, such as iBeacons, provide great user experiences. They require app installation in the user’s mobile device. Location accuracy close to the beacon is good. Deployment and configuration are simple. Reconfiguration and maintenance can be problematic for large installations without centralized control. Applications such as navigation in large venues, which benefit from higher accuracy may require a large number of beacons, increasing cost substantially. Best for proximity-based content delivery.
- Proximity-based applications using Wi-Fi hardware can deliver excellent performance when used with Wi-Fi tags and Android phones. Likely to work inconsistently with iOS devices. Required hardware deployment is simple and inexpensive. Unaffected in dynamic environments. Best for safety applications, and for people and asset tracking with room-level accuracy.
- Wi-Fi-based real-time locating systems are simple to install and manage, delivering accuracy ranging from 2 meters and up. Does not require app installation. Unaffected in dynamic environments, performs best in spaces with lots of solid walls and physical obstacles. Low accuracy in large open spaces with high ceilings. Hardware costs increase with venue size. Best for anonymous pedestrian traffic analysis, people and asset tracking using Wi-Fi tags.
It is easy to appreciate that no single technology can deliver optimal performance at a reasonable cost for all applications in every environment. Beyond differences in the underlying technologies (Wi-Fi, BLE, RFID), there are behavioral differences in the dominant platforms in the market, iOS and Android, that complicate matters. Here are a few examples:
- We are well aware that iOS and Android systems behave differently, but also different versions of those operating systems can perform quite differently as well. An example: the frequency at which Android phones from different manufacturers scan for Wi-Fi networks.
- iOS discourages using Wi-Fi MAC addresses for device identification, making device detection and tracking difficult, though not impossible.
- iOS 7 and higher support BLE beacon detection at the OS level, enabling implementation of iBeacons -based applications with minimal impact on battery life, while on Android, BLE support is (currently) available at the application level, which makes performance quite different.
- Android devices automatically scan for available Wi-Fi networks every few seconds, even when actively connected to one of them. iOS devices scan less frequently while not connected to any network.
- iOS natively supports iBeacon detection in the background, while Android devices require a custom app or service.
In brief: location-based applications meant to deploy on all platforms require careful balance of functional requirements with the most appropriate technology for the lowest total cost.
Treat your implementation of location technologies as you would the installation of other infrastructure. Because you are likely to have a variety of use cases and requirements, it is best to evaluate all potential use cases up front instead of one at a time, and deploy a platform that supports your ongoing needs. Much like installing plumbing or electricity: when you purchase a product that uses electricity, you don’t buy that product and the electricity together, but rely instead on the electrical system already installed.
Similarly, a location awareness platform can be installed and maintained such that developers need only access the APIs, and deploy hardware only if and where needed. Creativity and innovation thrive when they no longer have to concern themselves with procuring the right technology for the new application at hand. The key is finding a partner whose sole focus is location awareness.
Back to the original question: if you have been looking for that elusive silver bullet, consider that it will be more practical and much safer to have at hand more than one to choose from.