GPS, WiFi, and iBeacons: Providing a Natural Digital Media Experience
Indoor positioning is the final frontier to providing a truly natural digital media experience for smartphone users wanting to discover and interact with the world around them. So far, however, nothing about it has been, well, natural.
When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone back in 2007 he said: “So let's not use a stylus. We're going to use the best pointing device in the world. We're going to use a pointing device that we're all born with - born with ten of them. We're going to use our fingers.” It is completely natural to use your finger on the screen of a smartphone. Using that standard, every smartphone interaction, such as positioning, should be just as natural.
There are many ways that smartphones can find out where they are in the world. GPS (“Global Positioning System”) is pretty accurate, but it only works reliably outside. WiFi is being used in many places, but it can really only tell you what room you are in, not where exactly you are in the room. Bluetooth, is much more accurate than WiFi, so it gives us a chance to create a much more natural experience.
Steve Jobs also said “It's like we said on the iPad, if you see a stylus, they blew it”. Perhaps the current model of indoor positioning, like using a stylus, is blowing it. Instead of trying to figure out where you are inside of a room, maybe we should be finding out which object you are nearest to? The difference between finding what object you are nearest to instead of where you are is subtle, but important. Just like using your finger instead of a stylus, it is more natural.
GPS can’t do this because building materials interfere with the signal. WiFi and Bluetooth are able to do this, because a smartphone can tell roughly how close it is by the strength of the signal. I won’t bore you with the Inverse Square Law, but, essentially, WiFi and Bluetooth transmit data at a certain power level, and the further away you are, the lower the signal strength is. Smartphones are able to judge their distance from the transmitter using this information.
However, when we turn the positioning model on its head to find out what object you are nearest to, rather than where you are, a transmitter is needed for each object. WiFi transmitters are large and expensive when compared to Bluetooth transmitters like iBeacons, which are small and relatively inexpensive. So, it is more practical to put an iBeacon at each point of interest.
The reason we want to know where we are in the world is so that we have some context for our surroundings. How far is it to the restaurant? What stores are around me? How do I get home from here? Those are all things that we have been using for years when we are outside with a GPS.
Bringing that same level of contextual awareness indoors opens up huge possibilities. Put an iBeacon behind an object, and your smartphone can be supplied with information about that object as you move near to it. iBeacons provide a natural way for your smartphone to provide context based on your surroundings.
I’ve been to some museums and galleries with didactics (the little cards stuck to the wall beside a painting) that provided information about each display. But, that information is static and very limited. Think about the kinds of questions you have when you are looking at something. You want to know more than the dimensions and who made it. You want to know why it was made, how it was made, and what the artist was thinking when they made it. That is a lot of information to try and convey with a simple didactic. Using your smartphone and an iBeacon, you can easily get that information in many different ways beyond simple text, such as images, audio, and video.
Since smartphones know when they come into or out of the range of an iBeacon, it is also possible to gather valuable analytics, such as how often each iBeacon is visited, how long each visit lasts, and what path was taken to get there. This information is very useful to people who are providing the content, as they are able to gather this information without having to stand there and watch people. This information gathering can be completely anonymous, in keeping with privacy legislation in Canada and many other countries.
GPS is great at telling you how to get to a location, for example, where a particular museum is. WiFi easily connects you to the internet while you are in the museum, and can help you find your way to a specific section. iBeacons are perfect for identifying which display you are standing in front of, to let you get details about it without having to enter additional information. Each of these technologies has a different strength, and we just need to use them appropriately to provide the most natural digital media experience.
Addtionally, their digital product neartuit just won the Gerri Sinclair Award for Innovation in Digital Media, an MDM Scholarship awarded to a student or group of students in the MDM Program who have created a digital media product or innovation that has great potential either as a commercial digital media product or an innovative methodology for creating digital media products.