Of all the exciting new technologies and applications the explosion of sensors and network-connected things has brought to us, one of the most intriguing has to be indoor locationing – detecting and tracking mobile devices and assets in buildings based on their wireless signals for purposes ranging from asset tracking and security to visitor wayfinding and targeted marketing.
The concept of indoor locationing, and the possibilities it presented, started getting serious attention in 2009 and 2010 after new smartphone sales overtook those of ‘feature phones.’ With the Internet and consumerized location apps like Google Maps and Foursquare in the pocket of a growing percentage of the population, it didn’t take long for entrepreneurs and marketers to realize the value of bringing GPS-like locationing capabilities indoors.
Early approaches to indoor locationing, however, had limited success. Poor device detection, high maintenance costs, inaccurate locationing and low user acceptance all hampered their adoption. More recently, newer technologies introduced better locationing and statistical models to fill in the information gaps left by earlier systems, but the dream of delivering the perfectly tailored marketing offer at the perfect place to the perfect person still remains far from reality.
As with many technologies, while the use originally imagined may not be coming to fruition right now, indoor locationing is making surprising inroads in a completely different area – building planning, operations and maintenance.
From Factory Floor to Front Office
Long before innovators were attempting to use wireless indoor locationing for marketing purposes, manufacturers, supply chain managers, logistics firms and others were already managing the movement of equipment, raw materials and finished product via asset tracking systems that both increased efficiency and reduced loss. Other industries took notice and soon asset tracking systems were showing up in hospitals, retail stores, office buildings, and other facilities. Asset management technology became core to a multitude of business operations and spawned whole new business practices like real time inventory management, periodic asset replenishment, and automated maintenance management.
Then, around the same time smartphones were going mainstream, a plethora of new, low cost wireless asset tagging technologies arrived. Not only did these make it far simpler to locate and manage assets on the move, but they also provided a treasure trove of historical data regarding how assets moved through a facility, where they spend most of their time, how they relate to other assets, and other insights made possible with the addition of location information. By early 2014, asset managers developed new features like real time location systems (RTLS), web-based dashboards and continuously updated reporting that let facilities managers, operations and maintenance personnel identify trouble spots, understand their causes and address them immediately rather than allowing them to continue for weeks or months. The benefits were so obvious and immediate that soon real time asset management-like features and reporting abilities were also appearing in other front office applications like HR/staffing, customer service and maintenance request systems. One particular industry, retail real estate, took notice.
Closing the Distance with eCommerce
By 2015, it was no secret that retailing was undergoing a tectonic shift. eCommerce was eating a larger and larger share of the consumer shopping pie at the expense of brick and mortar retailers (and consequently retail property owners) and even creeping into areas such as groceries, club stores and big screen movie theaters where it was once believed the impact of online sales would be limited. Acknowledging the shopping experience was likely going to be changed forever, retail property owners began to look around for ways to bring visitors back to their shopping centers. If not the retail shops, then things that couldn’t yet be replicated online – new shopping center configurations with restaurants, sports and amusements, live events and the like. But these changes require a lot of capital improvements, and without an effective way to quickly and confidently measure their success, property owners were looking at substantial risks without a great deal of certainty as to the rewards. eRetailers had long since perfected tracking tools that allowed them to assess customer behavior down to the tiniest detail, but the brick and mortar world was still working with foot counters, surveys and systems that only measured a fraction of customer behavior.
The requirement for accurate data indoors presented the perfect opportunity for asset tracking-like methodologies to enter the retail properties industry. Asset tracking systems were excellent at collecting data that allowed management to make educated decisions on what should be placed where to optimize asset usage, building layout, etc., and these principles were applied to all sorts of fields like healthcare for periodic asset replenishment and real time inventory management and traffic control and optimization for retail. RTLS took these measurements to the next level but acted as a closed system, if there wasn’t a tag on what you wanted to track, you were out of luck.
Wireless Pulls Through
Wireless technologies saw this gap and jumped in ushering the ability to monitor and track for the information needed without the arguable burden of traditional tags. After all, the always on-person smartphones and other devices constantly chattering via wireless frequencies are already existent tags.
True to the original dreams of indoor locationing, indoor location data on individuals isn’t particularly useful if you are unable to act directly with that individual. However, the aggregate information generated by thousands or tens of thousands of people and millions of hours of observation can bring new insight where there was none before. New adaptive RTLS methodologies with indoor locationing give retail property managers a much better idea of how visitors behave, how spaces and obstructions change footfall and how a building space can be optimized to generate more revenue, provide better safety and improve visitor experience.
This immense quantity of data is collected without requiring visitors to actively participate and by combining traditional asset tracking through RFID tags, a truly unified RTLS, or uRTLS, system is born. This data feeds building planners what they need to maximize space and utilization, mall owners to maximize revenue and justify capital improvements, and facilities manager to predict maintenance requirements, energy and HVAC based on occupancy and use. This data can build the dream of smart buildings, malls, communities, cities, and more.
But the original dream of indoor locationing isn’t dead. Beyond reshaping the in-building landscape, what we learn about aggregate behavior can turn into customer information and interaction leading to better ROI and sales uplift. As uRTLS technology improves, so will predictive analytics leading to optimization of the entire in-building system. One day in the near future, indoor location-based marketing will not only be possible but will enhance the in-store experience.
While it didn’t happen quite the way everyone imagined back in 2008, the idea of context-aware everything based on mobile device location may finally become a retail reality.
Originally published here.