Imagine going to work each day and arriving at your office to find everything ready for you so you can just to sit down and start working. Your computer is booted up, your lights are set the way you like them, and your phone stops sending calls to voicemail. A screen at your desk displays your meetings for the day as a reminder.
This is a vision Citrix has started implementing for hospitals and in its own offices in Florida. It has started with the simple act of turning on a computer so it can boot up before the person arrives at his or her office. But Chris Witeck, a principal technology strategist at Citrix, says the goal is to add much much more.
The company is relying on one of the most important elements of context to make this possible: Location.
Future computing services are all about context. There’s too much information to handle, so computers will have to get better at assessing what information people need at a given point in time. For that, context is key, and one of the most valuable pieces of information for contextual computing is location.
Mapping location, whether it’s for a person or a thing, can happen in a many ways. It seems that even more options appear every day.
Companies are using a combination of wireless triggers, math, manual check-ins and computer vision to boost their ability to locate people and objects in a building. Some of the methods are decidedly old-school such as using geofencing to tell when someone has entered an office, but all of these methods provide an essential element needed for contextual computing.
For example, last month Estimote, a company that makes Bluetooth beacons, launched a new product that uses Bluetooth and a second form of wireless signal called UltraWideBand (UWB) to create a mesh network between beacons that uses proprietary math to figure out where beacons sit in a room.
The technology means that people who put Estimote Beacons in their stores or offices do not have to manually map out a room’s dimensions before placing the beacons inside. Combine this technology with the virtual beacons provided by Mist and you have a real chance at making indoor positioning scalable. Mist offers virtual beacons, which allows companies to do away with the physical beacons.
For now, to get this capability the company placing the beacons must use Estimote, and apps that want to take advantage of it must use the Estimote Location SDK to build anything useful. Then, the consumer has to have an app on his or her phone in order to get information.
Thus, this setup might make more sense in an enterprise or corporate office setting where beacons are less likely to get moved and users are compelled to download an application.
Citrix is using less sophisticated tools to map location for its customers. Actually, it is using three. The first is geofencing by using an employee getting on a corporate Wi-Fi network as a means to trigger events such as a computer booting up.
This is a fairly blunt tool and requires the employees to run a work app on their phone, so Citrix is also using GPS and NFC as other ways to get an employee’s location.
The GPS tool works much like the Wi-Fi geofence, but tracks employee location everywhere (so it might be more beneficial in larger campus settings). It’s also a potential employee privacy concern.
NFC is more interesting, although it requires a physical badge and NFC readers around a building. Citrix lets people use their NFC-based badge to log into conference rooms or patient examining rooms in a hospital setting. The system can then pull up whatever relevant data they need based on the type of room they are in. Patients in some hospitals might get their own NFC badge to log into the room as well.
Another option that is filling a gap are the network of Bluetooth-based trackers out there from companies like Tile and TrackR that rely on a network effect of a large user base to show location. This method works well in urban and crowded areas for tracking objects, but it’s not granular enough to see where something is in a building, nor is it great where there aren’t a lot of users of the trackers.
And of course, there are a variety of cellular-based options that use GPS and gateways for tracking cars or expensive goods across the supply chain.
Quality location devices are likely to remain highly fragmented and dependent on specific use cases. The most interesting advances right now are being made indoors, where companies are trying to understand where both people and things are. The ideal solutions will need to scale across many locations easily, won’t be dependent on an app and will enable tracking of both things and people. When it comes to people, it should be flexible enough that it can differentiate between roles, such as a doctor or patient or customer and employee.
That’s a tall order, but it’s a big need to get to the future of contextual computing.