The importance of physical context for indoor positioning systems

PictographFrom the initial days when it received unrestrained hype, the Internet of Things (IoT) has evolved to perform several roles across industries and domains. Industries such as manufacturing are already reaping the biggest benefits as IoT becomes an integral part of systems and exhibits signs of technological maturity. The automotive industry, on the other end of the spectrum, is also poised for a radical and visible paradigm shift. The industry has undergone tremendous leaps to overturn how mobility is experienced over the last half decade. However, in the consumer space outside of mobility, IoT’s effect has been somewhat lukewarm as mass adoption is yet to truly take off.

Physical context and immersive experiences

More than a decade of smartphone adoption and obsession has led to a scenario wherein a new ‘smart’ device evokes far less attention from consumers. So IoT providers need to rethink just how they expect to drive user adoption and successful product launches. The answer lies in the fact that, more than the devices, IoT promises to herald an era where digital and physical experiences are so closely intertwined that they are almost inseparable.

To enable immersive experiences, service providers thus need to merge the detection of artifacts from a user’s physical environment to their interactions with them. Rapidly advancing strides in AI and Machine Learning have also made possible the combination of data collected across sensors to predict outcomes. Many of these sensors usually come packaged with existing devices such as smartphones, and thereby make it possible to detect granular components of a user’s physical environment.

Indoor positioning as a physical context

PictographA key component of physical context here is user location. As GPS-based applications such as Google Maps have become ubiquitous, their popularity has bred other services that not only utilize location data directly, but also adapt themselves as per a user’s real-time positioning. For instance, applications now learn about user preferences for cab and home delivery services based on location, thereby enabling personalized services based on whether a user is at home, work or anywhere else. However, such applications only provide information about places that are identifiable on geographical maps.

To provide truly immersive and contextual experiences, it is thus necessary to get a granular understanding of the indoor spaces a user interacts with. Such spaces are characterized by a much higher diversity of semantic interpretations. Unlike geographical places that are defined by standardized notions of a street, junction, building etc., indoor spaces differ in the sense of their utility. For instance, the structure of a workplace is completely different from that of a house or a supermarket. So, it is essential for indoor positioning solutions to adapt to all varying notions of indoor spaces.

Challenges of indoor positioning

PictographThe primary challenge of indoor positioning is the diversity of indoor spaces and their perception by humans. The complexity of such structures and their inherent materials make it such that technologies such as GPS do not work well indoors. To solve this, other technologies such as BLE beacons, Wi-Fi, magnetometers, ultra-wide bands and others are being used. Choosing the appropriate technology for a venue depends on parameters such as:

  • Indoor positioning requirements
  • Effectiveness of each technology for the venue
  • Business viability of each technology

Positioning vs. navigation

A key differentiator between indoor vs. outdoor positioning is their usage. Most of the applications used for determining geographical locations are related to wayfinding – traffic updates or route management. For indoor positioning outcomes though, interpretations for use-cases are still open due to a close relationship between a user and physical objects. Although wayfinding or navigation applications have been primary use-cases so far, this is unlikely to continue longer as contextual experiences become commonplace. For application designers, this means that user context needs to be estimated based on several triggers when it comes to designing indoor positioning solutions.

Network of contextual interactions

The determination of indoor positioning needs to be correlated to how a person interacts with the space itself. As a result, as the resolution of an indoor location become granular, it is important to associate it with other contextual information pertaining to an individual(s). For instance, a coffee shop may be used as a meeting point for members from the same office, but it turns into a book club for a member of the same group over the weekends. So, it is essential for service providers to associate indoor spaces with corresponding activities.

The importance of privacy

PictographAll this information relating to physical context concern the granular aspects of an individual’s activities and are extremely intimate in nature. The immersive activities here pertain to every aspect of a user’s life including daily routines, shopping behavior, healthcare and more. As a result, privacy concerns are legitimate and grave. Most of such applications are also expected to function without any human intervention. It is therefore, imperative that privacy boundaries are not just considered, but remain central to every contextual solution.

About the author

Hemanth S M

Hemanth S M

Business head and strategist in a “iero” an intrapreneurial venture in Bosch
Hemanth Sheelvant, is business head and strategist in a Bosch’s intrapreneurial venture “iero” and holds responsibility for iero driving Business development and consulting, leading to customer acquisitions and delivering end-to-end application solution.

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