the world around us: the evolution of smartphone geolocation
We’re on the eve of another major explosion of technological innovation and paradigm shift in smartphone use.
A new process known as micro-location is poised to change the way our smartphones interact with the world around us. Not to discount all the wonderful innovation that has occurred in the mobile world, but a developer’s freedom has long been crippled by the fact that by nature, software is completely isolated in the digital realm. Without any real interaction with the physical world, app developers haven’t been solving real problems. In fact they seem to spend most of their time inventing novel, yet completely useless social networks. This is poised to change.
Remember how important and amazing it seemed the first time you realized your phone knew what city you were in? That it could not only figure out exactly where you are, but tell you how to get where you’re going? Next thing you knew, you were receiving location-specific deals from some company called Groupon, checking into local businesses through some company called FourSquare and tagging your Facebook photos with a location.
GPS is a pretty amazing system, but it has limitations. Namely, accuracy and reliability. Unless you’re in the U.S. military, best case GPS horizontal accuracy is around 10 feet under a blue sky on a sunny day. Any obstruction between you and that sky (like a roof) quickly compromises that accuracy, potentially even making geolocation impossible.
GPS is no longer the only tool we have to locate where exactly we are on this giant rock hurtling through space. Alternatives have existed (Skyhook), but until recently, nothing had solved the problem of micro-location.
Slowly invading your electronics for the last decade, Bluetooth is now found in cars, headphones, and most importantly, nearly every smartphone currently available on the market.
For a long time, the Bluetooth protocol was limited to power-intensive, short range wireless applications that first required a pairing process. That all changed in 2010 with the advent of Bluetooth low energy (LE for short). LE is so conservative in its power usage that the electrical components of a device broadcasting over LE are likely to fail before even a moderate sized battery is ever drained. This takes a very long time. This is the technology that makes portable sensors like the FitBit possible. More importantly though, it has laid the groundwork for our phones to interact with the real world in ways never foreseen before.
The biggest spark to start this innovation explosion is a relatively trivial-seeming piece of technology, called a Bluetooth beacon.
Bluetooth beacons allow developers to perform very accurate, small scale micro-location. We’re talking about identifying precisely which room in an open house a user is in, which museum exhibit they’re currently viewing, or even how long the user pondered a pair of skinny jeans from the hipster section of Macy’s.
These devices are going to change how we use our smartphones, and at this moment large-scale production of these fantastic devices is only beginning. An exhaustive list of potential uses would be worthy of its own (much longer) article, but everyone should be aware of the innovation precipice we found ourselves perched on. A tech revolution is coming, one that hopefully turns our smartphones into devices that integrate us better into the world around us, rather than increasing our isolation.