Now that geolocation is massively present in our lives, and used on lots of mobile applications, a new hot topic in mobile technology seems to be coming. It is indoor, short range location.
Some time ago I discovered that in a popular supermarket in Singapore the shopping carts had an LCD screen that showed information relevant to the section you were walking through at that point in time. At first I thought “well, the latest form of publicity in the kingdom of advertisement”, something fancy, but just that. Or was it something else?. Are they just showing you offers that are at the reach of your fingertips, or are they doing something else?. What if they are tracking the movements of the cart by some sort of indoor-GPS so they can know what are the shopping and movement patterns of the visitors?.
This seems like a very interesting application to every public space that receives visitors or customers, as it provides a very useful and detailed insight of the movements of the visitors within the space, also being able to detect hot spots that draw visitors attention, what are the places, on the other hand, that are barely visited, and many other parameters that define the analytics of how users move themselves in any open space.
So probably these guys are not just offering me the current promotion on house wines as I walk by the spirits section, but they are actually tracking, recording, and analyzing all my movements in the store. This way they can know where do I spend more time, whether I come back to a section where I have been before, maybe indicating the products are not too clearly shown as I needed to come back and find something.
The technology seems to be very interesting in its practical applications, but in this particular case it is very probably based on RFID, which means that each cart probably has a passive RFID and they have a number of receivers in the store to track our movements. Not rocket science, definitely, but a very intelligent way of having some insight onto an otherwise very complex problem to resolve.
Removing the cart
Having recognized the value of indoor location and visitor tracking, we can imagine a lot of applications for this, virtually anywhere subject to receiving visits of customers. Airports, Supermarkets, any type of stores, even bank branches can benefit of this to optimize resources and know what are the patterns that drive customer behaviour in real life interactions -as opposed to virtual interactions over the internet, which are much easier to track-.
But the fundamental limitation seems to be how do we stick our customers and visitors to an RFID. Easy in the case of a supermarket where you are very likely to pick a shopping cart, but complicated in many other situations. However, there seems to be some possibilities in using three forms of signals that your mobile phone can be publicly sharing: TMSI (Temporary Mobile Subscriber Identity), Bluetooth and Wi Fi. Whilst Bluetooth and Wi Fi depend on the user having this feature activated on the phone, they are quite good sources of information to perform indoor tracking.
However the first one seems to have a broader application, as it is first anonymous, resolving the traditional privacy issue of location and tracking, and second, is always active. It is based on a regular communication all mobiles perform with their base stations in order to report their location. These communications can be picked by indoor antennas and can be used for locating the position of the user with a precision down to 1-2 m. Good enough isn’t it?.
There is a very interesting paper that describes this technology in detail as well as providing a pilot study with very interesting results. As stated in the paper, this is the having Google Analytics for real life customer interactions…