Beyond GPS: Smartphones Get Smarter with Context Awareness at CES 2014

LAS VEGAS – GPS has pretty much become a standard feature on most smartphones today, which is great when you’re out and about and need directions to a specific address.

But what happens when you get to that location – perhaps an office building, a shopping mall or an airport terminal – and don’t know whether to turn left or right once you walk through the door?

The problem is two-fold.

First, there’s the issue of bringing navigation indoors, which requires a strong backbone of Wi-Fi access points and data from sources like sensors to create an indoor network that can give accurate location information. While GPS works great for most outdoor applications, it’s nowhere near as accurate or pervasive enough to cope with the smaller-scale needs of people using mobile devices to navigate once they step into the confines of four walls.

Second, there’s the problem of context. What good is having an accurate picture of where you are without knowing where to go next?A phone with a proximity based app

That’s the infrastructure piece of the equation, where places like a hospital campus, a multi-level parking garage, or even a grocery store would provide detailed maps of what’s around you and help you get to where you want to go.

“It’s one thing to get a location, but another to get a location that is actually useful,” said Mohamed Awad, director of product marketing for Broadcom’s Mobile & Wireless Group. “Your phone may tell you that you’re in a building and you’re 15 feet from the south wall and 22 feet from the west wall, but does that do you any good? What you really want to know is whose office are you in, and where your colleague’s office is.”

Soon, your mobile device – and the network infrastructure that surrounds it — will be smart enough to provide that information, and much more.

Context awareness, location-based services and the myriad apps that go with them are slated to be a hot topic at next week’s International Consumer Electronics Show, the industry’s biggest gathering.

The technologies that enable context awareness already exist,and Broadcom is at the forefront of many of them. They include low-power chip designs, Wi-Fi access points, Bluetooth Low Energy, Near Field Communication (NFC) and other flavors of device-to-device and device-to-network connectivity.

Broadcom’s HULA (Hybrid Universal Location Application) technology tackles the challenge of getting these connectivity technologies to work together by tapping into other types of sensors – even those on other devices located within a building – and then crunching the data to obtain more precise positioning (within a meter, in some cases).

That requires fusing available data from smartphone sensor hubs, Wi-Fi location information (a spec in the new Wi-Fi standard calls for all access points to share this information), pedestrian dead reckoning (heading, speed, etc.) and satellite-based Global Positioning Systems, where available.

A shopping mall, for example, could offer a detailed digital map of not only the names and locations of the stores inside, but could also promote kiosks where customers can get coupons and offers sent straight to their smartphones. A grocery store or library could tap into a real-time database to point shoppers or borrowers to where an item or book sits on the shelf.

Indoor positioning is expected to see widespread adoption in coming years – the technology is predicted to reach almost 100 percent penetration by 2020 – for several reasons.

For one, operators of Emergency 911 services are eager to incorporate it into their efforts. With more than 70 percent of 911 calls today coming from mobile phones, the ability to determine the origin of the call becomes tougher, even more so when that call originates from an indoor location, or perhaps, a disaster site.

Another element in the tech’s growth is the widespread adoption of location-based information by businesses – who want mobile device users to be able to find them – and consumers, who have embraced the use of location-based apps on their mobile devices.

Context-awareness is likely to first appear in the locations with the most to gain, such as airports, shopping malls and hospitals. Shoppers in a mall, for example, might want to know how to get to a specific store or even a specific item. Similarly, supermarkets have big incentives to help guide the cart from the milk aisle to the cereal aisle. Hospitals could make it easy for visitors to find a patient’s room, while airports could help travelers find their departure gate, a restroom or the nearest food concession with a short line.

Finally, there’s the business angle – the potential opportunities around advertising and mobile commerce.

In addition to indoor navigation, context aware technology could deliver specific offers and discounts based on where the consumer is or what is nearby. If a merchant knows, for example, that someone is walking by the food court in the mall, a coupon could be sent to his mobile phone to lure him in for a snack.

Adding identification services to the mix provides another useful layer to these types of applications. An office worker’s computer could unlock itself when the user walks in the office – no password credentials necessary.

Broadcom’s Awad predicts that context awareness will be built into thousands of everyday smartphone and wearable-computing apps over the next three to five years.

Context awareness could enrich augmented-reality games as well as dating and social apps. Schools could use location awareness to track students, while hospitals and clinics could use it to track doctors and patients in clinical environments. Eventually, that could spread to enterprises locating their workers in large office buildings. There are even possible applications in law-enforcement and correctional facilities.

Right now, we engage with our smartphones. In the near future, our smartphones will engage with us, bringing a whole new level of intelligence, personalization and utility to our lives, indoors and out.

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About the Author

Special Correspondent Fredric Paul is an award-winning writer, editor and content strategist who has spent his career covering the intersection of technology, business, and culture. His writing has appeared… More