Location-Aware App Technology Featured at Jersey Shore Meetup


About 40 app developers gathered in late April 2012 at Cowerks (Asbury Park) for a Jersey Shore Tech Meetup. The meeting featured a discussion by Brock Butler of Spirent (Eatontown), who focused on new technologies being developed that will enable new classes of apps.

The bottom line: features like indoor positioning, geofencing and context awareness are going to change the way people use mobile devices, creating huge opportunities for developers who devise the best ways to create apps taking advantage of this technology, Butler said.

Butler began his talk by discussing the common uses for location-based technologies, such as 911, finding children and pets, navigation, mobile marketing, checking in to see where your friends are and exercise tracking.

After reviewing in some depth the current technologies available for developers to use, Butler turned his attention to newer, sensor-based ones that can revolutionize location-based apps and will be available in the not-too-distant future.

Sensors are going to be big, he said, particularly for enabling indoor navigation. Those being developed for next-generation chip sets are going to be a lot more accurate, smaller and lower in price, he added.

“Pretty soon we will be able to navigate inside a building, within 10 meters of accuracy, for 15 to 30 minutes. This will enable new applications that weren’t possible before. Every handset manufacturer, every chip set manufacturer plus a host of startups are working on this,” Butler noted.

The iPhone already has sensors in it for acceleration, a magnetometer for orientation and a barometer for height.  While not very accurate at determining where you are at any particular point, these sensors are very accurate at sensing a change.

So if you enter a mall and go up four levels, the barometer can sense you’ve done this, Butler said. At this time, however, the app has to know you started out on the first floor; otherwise, the initial reading will be off.

In the future, all these sensors will be collecting data continuously. Researchers are developing algorithms that take all this into account, blending the sensor data with traditional location data to provide the best possible location information, he explained.

“The filters that go into deciding which technology to use at any one point in time are mind-boggling,” Butler said. Academic researchers are working on developing techniques to figure this out, but no one technique has evolved as the right way to hand off the data, he noted.

Another newer hardware solution to the indoor navigation problem is ultrasonic beacons that emit sound waves in a range humans can’t hear. Microphones in the phone can sense how close the user comes to a beacon, Butler said. Shopkick uses this, but retailers have to install the infrastructure.

One technology now being standardized lets users with non-smartphones use location technology. They get their locations through other phones in proximity to theirs. “In the future there will be one big ad hoc network, and we’ll all be trading information,” Butler predicted.

For applications like geofencing, through which you can monitor a person, animal or object within a particular boundary, battery life is an issue. “I have yet to see one of these apps not eat a battery,” he said, but “new algorithms coming along will make that problem go away.” Instead of always pinging the network to learn where the phone is, there will be a way to set off a trigger only when the phone leaves a boundary.

“I see indoor positioning becoming a reality and becoming accurate due to sensors,” Butler said. “Not only will you be able to navigate to the mall, you’ll be able to navigate to the product in the store in the mall.”

The check-in experience will also improve, Butler predicted. An app could automatically check users in as they walk through the door. On the dark side, marketing promotions for products you walk past could be delivered more easily from inside the store. Entertainment apps for activities like indoor scavenger hunts could be developed. Emergency response in large urban buildings could be significantly enhanced.

“I’m most excited about new things the technology can do,” Butler said. “The newest sensor technologies will sense not only where you are but what you are doing. They can tell if you are walking, running, driving a car.”

“You may not want to get a work email when you are at home,” Butler noted. “When you are driving, you might not want to text. … Sensors are going to make this work within the next two or three years.”

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