Sorting through wireless location use cases and technology options

Many organizations are exploring the roles that wireless location and analytics technologies can play in their digital and customer experience initiatives. But the vast array of technologies, possible strategies and use cases can lead to confusion. Adding to this confusion is a flood of innovations from both established and startup companies proliferating the space. This article will sort through the options and hopefully leave you with a clearer understanding of the role wireless location technologies can play.

WHAT IS WIRELESS LOCATION AND WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TECHNOLOGIES INVOLVED?

Historically, wireless location was and still is used for asset tracking (e.g., making sure an expensive piece of medical equipment can be easily located inside a hospital). Real Time Location Systems (RTLS) are primarily based on Radio-frequency Identification (RFID) technology, which involve using small electronic tags on assets that can be located when they are near a reader (i.e., a scanner that picks up the tag’s electronic signal and unique identifier). These systems work well for their intended purposes, but because smartphones don’t have RFID modes, they are little help for organizations wishing to interact with consumers or patients.

Instead, the innovation in wireless location centers around using more modern wireless technologies (i.e., WiFi and Bluetooth) that are common in every smartphone and mobile device, and that are relatively easy to interact with to create a unique experience. Below, we’ll look more in depth at methods for wireless location through WiFi location, the use of Bluetooth beacons and new innovations around Bluetooth location.

WIRELESS LOCATION TECHNOLOGY: WIFI LOCATION

WiFi location works by detecting WiFi signals from a smartphone or other WiFi-enabled device and using the strength of the signal as an indicator of distance. If a WiFi system can detect the same WiFi signal from multiple access points (APs), that’s even better because the distance vectors can be combined to more accurately pinpoint the exact location of the device. This type of WiFi location pinpointing is known as “Trilateration” or “Scanning” and is very common in WiFi systems including Cisco, Aruba, Meraki and Mist. RSSI-based Trilateration typically has an accuracy of 20 to 30 feet, though the range could be reduced if the system only has a limited number of APs.

See the example of employing multiple APs in the graphic below:

Strategies for Wireless Location and Analytics

WiFi Trilateration/Scanning Example

If the WiFi system can detect where a person’s smartphone is located within 20 to 30 feet, it’s possible to know what area of a large retail store or what part of a hospital they’re in. Using that information, a smartphone app can notify and interact with that person in a way that creates a tailored experience relevant to that area of the store or hospital.

But what if the organization wants to know the exact store aisle a customer is standing in or the specific group of seats a patient is occupying in the waiting room? Trilateration is unlikely to provide the level of accuracy needed.

A relatively new innovation in WiFi location technology can detect not only the WiFi signal strength, but also the angle of the signal being received relative to the AP. This new pinpointing methodology is called “Triangulation” and is unique to Cisco at the time of writing (Cisco markets this technology as “Hyperlocation”). Triangulation can improve the accuracy of location pinpointing within three to six feet of device location when properly designed and deployed. An example is shown below:

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WiFi Triangulation/Hyperlocation Example

If the WiFi system can detect where a person’s smartphone is located within three to six feet, it’s possible to know not just what area of a large retail store they’re in, but likely the exact aisle or part of the aisle they’re in, too. Using that information, a smartphone app could provide that person a context-based experience tailored to the relevant products in that aisle. Similarly, it would be possible for a restaurant to know what table a customer was sitting at, or for a hospital to know with a fair degree of accuracy where a patient was located.

If retailers have the ability to know where consumers are and how they travel through their stores, marketing teams can obtain a wealth of data about consumer behaviors and optimize their sales strategies accordingly.

While WiFi Trilateration and Triangulation use cases are still in the early stages of development, we expect this technology will continue to improve.

WIRELESS LOCATION TECHNOLOGY: BLUETOOTH BEACONS

People use Bluetooth every day to connect to wireless headphones, cars, speakers and other devices. As a technology, Bluetooth has gotten more and more efficient, both in transmission speeds and battery consumption. One variation of Bluetooth, known as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), is gaining a lot of traction as a wireless location technology. The two fundamental types of BLE location systems are beacons and scanning.

BLE beacons involve the placement of small devices in environments like stores, museums or hospitals. Each physical beacon emits what is known as a “chirp” — a short transmission of a unique identifier that consists of two numbers: a major and minor. The two numbers can be used as unique identifiers on the map of the facility. For example, a museum can designate the major as an area of the museum, like Jurassic, and the minor can be designated as the exhibit, like Tyrannosaurus Rex. This is shown in the example below:

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Bluetooth Physical Beacon Trilateration Example

Smartphone apps can be created to use beacons to provide contextual information or experiences. For example, the museum could create a pop-up trigger that automatically displays more information about the T-Rex whenever a smartphone with its app comes into proximity of the T-Rex display.

This type of beacon use is very common in retail. Companies push offers and coupons to consumers when they’re close to a store or product.

There are some challenges with beacons. They are typically small battery-powered devices mounted with sticky tape behind a retail display or other concealment. And beacons’ major/minor numbers typically must be connected to a laptop and manually programmed. Our customers have not had the greatest experience with beacons. Batteries run out and must be replaced; management isn’t always centralized. This means that more than a handful of beacons can become unmanageable quickly.

Enter the infrastructure beacon. Many WiFi systems vendors in the market have integrated beacons into their WiFi APs, including Cisco, Aruba, Meraki and Mist. The advantages of infrastructure beacons include being powered by the AP, being centrally managed, and being inherently concealed inside the AP. Infrastructure beacons work identically to physical beacons, but they’re considered far more manageable. An example is shown below:

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Bluetooth Infrastructure Beacon Trilateration Example

With both physical and infrastructure beacons, it is also possible for a smartphone app to use the beacons to identify its location. This is typically done through the process of “fingerprinting” a facility so that a database is made available to the app. For example, if an app can see three different beacons with known signal strengths (see example above), the app can infer the smartphone is in a particular location.

This is very different from WiFi location, where the WiFi system is calculating the location and perhaps passing along an X,Y coordinate to an app. In this case, the smartphone app must calculate its own X,Y. This is very significant, particularly for its impact on location analytics data that can be collected and leveraged by the digital marketing team. This will be discussed further in Parts 2 and 3 of this article.

WIRELESS LOCATION TECHNOLOGY: BLUETOOTH SCANNING

As with WiFi, it’s also possible to apply Trilateration and Triangulation to Bluetooth signals. This relatively new innovation in wireless location provides many of the same benefits as WiFi scanning, but with the added bonus of being able to leverage the Bluetooth capabilities that allow smartphones to offer new consumer experiences and collect analytics data. An example of Bluetooth triangulation is shown below:

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Bluetooth Triangulation/Scanning example

Similar to WiFi, determining a smartphone’s location via its Bluetooth signal makes it possible for organizations to give retail customers a more engaged experience, or hospital patients better information about where their next appointment is. Many WiFi vendors are adding BLE scanning capabilities to their wireless APs, including Cisco, Aruba, Meraki and Mist.

WIRELESS LOCATION TECHNOLOGY: VIRTUAL BEACONS

The concept of a virtual beacon (vBLE), created by Mist, is also relatively new to the market. By leveraging a combination of infrastructure beacons and “hyperlocation” for Bluetooth signals, vBLE can provide X,Y data to an app in a way that triggers a behavior in the same way that coming into the proximity to a physical beacon would.

For example, in our museum example, instead of having to deploy hundreds or thousands of physical beacons, vBLE would allow the museum to deploy the system in the ceiling like a WiFi system, drag and drop on a map where they want the beacon behaviors to appear in their facility, and the vBLE system does the rest. Instead of using physical beacon signals, the smartphone is given a trigger whenever it is in proximity to the virtual beacon. An example is shown below:

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Bluetooth Virtual Beacon Triangulation Example

vBLE provides an easy way to deploy the proximity-based experiences available through physical beacons without having to deploy beacons. The innovations in vBLE are being brought to market by Mist, and as you can imagine, the technology is very exciting for organizations in retail, healthcare and other industries where proximity experiences can be used to enhance experiences for customers, patients, students and others.

WHICH WIRELESS LOCATION STRATEGY SHOULD I DEPLOY?

We’ve talked about the different technologies available today, including WiFi, Bluetooth beacons, and Bluetooth scanning. We’ve also touched on system-calculated location versus app/smartphone calculated location. But what solution should you use?

The answer depends on what use cases you want to bring to life. Different wireless location technologies are better at some use cases than others. Another important consideration is the audience you want to reach or interact with. Will they join your guest WiFi? Will they leave their WiFi mode enabled on their smartphone? Will they leave Bluetooth mode enabled? Will they download your app? Do you need an app?

Our research has shown that if you have good enticements, up to 60 percent of people will join your guest WiFi. We’ve also found that approximately 45 percent of consumers leave Bluetooth enabled. App penetration rates, or the ability to get people to download, use and continue to use your app, are relatively low. The most popular apps in the industry may garnish only 15-25 percent penetration.

As the table below shows, it is essential to map the desired use cases to the different wireless location technologies, and design a strategy for your digital engagement with an architecture that best fits the use cases your organization wants to bring to life:

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WIRELESS LOCATION USE CASES

The retail industry has been the frontrunner in developing use cases, including using wireless location to craft context aware experiences, enhance indoor navigation, enable product locators, and drive mobile engagement. Imagine walking into your favorite store and instantly being welcomed as a loyalty member while your smartphone seamlessly guides you to a product you favorited before arrival?

Or maybe you’re browsing for appliances in a home retailer. You look down at your phone and are instantly presented with the option to pull up reviews about the exact product you’re standing before in the aisle. These are the types of experiences retailers want to bring to life. It’s all about giving customers a frictionless experience.

While retail is paving the way, other industries are quickly adapting wireless location technology for their own uses: like healthcare, to improve patient experience; manufacturing, to optimize production and inventory workflows; education, to provide better student services; and even cities and municipal governments, to provide better services to citizens.

One of the biggest mistakes we see organizations make is buying one or more wireless location systems before figuring out how to deliver the use cases they want. Our advice is to start by defining the use cases you need to deliver as part of your digital strategy; factor in the likely behavior of your audience in terms of WiFi, Bluetooth and apps; and only then decide on the location system or systems you need to deploy.

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  1. Marc Miller says:

    An interesting and timely article. The combination of the technologies mentioned will provide the results indicated. However, not all use cases require the detail accuracy. Note that the use case requirements are evolving, as well, and typically the retrofit expense is beyond the allocated budget. Early assessment of the projected requirements is essential. Knowledge of what is current, in development, and proposed with regard to ‘the state of the art’ is needed to provide a ‘just in time’ solution for the business/user. All too typical is the catch-up game that results from poor planning, and marketing-only driven solutions.

    1. Neil Anderson says:

      Marc, I could not agree more. Unfortunately we see some of our customers jump into a technology and then are disappointed when their use cases cannot be implemented reliably. We like to start with the use cases — what do you want to do? how accurate does it need to be? who is the audience? etc. and only after we understand the real use cases, define the technical architecture that will deliver them.

  2. Michael Monroe says:

    Neil, nice job here! This is a good primer doc for sales types. It’s educational even when you know a little bit or think you do. Introduces/covers the technologies at a high level, is well illustrated and even provides a few use case to stimulate their (our) thinking. Could be a great intro prezo to prospects as well.

    1. Neil Anderson says:

      Thanks for the comment Michael. That was exactly the intent for this article was to provide a bit of an overview of the different technologies and help people understand how they apply to different use cases!