Location Based Services (LBS), first imagined more than 20 years ago, have become ubiquitous over the past several years, mostly thanks to GPS-enabled smart phones. New apps use locations to send anything from local weather or traffic conditions and nearby retailers and restaurants to additional information on products in a store and walk times to departure gates at airports.
You can summon a taxi to your location, collectively share images based on a common location, even warn vision-impaired people of obstacles. Google has gone so far as to use LBS to help retailers promote products in their stores by connecting customers to product information, discounts, and reviews, and can even connect in-store purchase data with online ad-spend. All major social networks have also adopted location-based features to enhance user experience on their apps.
At the core of all these services lies accurate mapping services. Service providers are constantly mapping the world with high accuracy and using that data to providing information directly to people’s phones. Highly accurate mobile mapping is an essential part of all these services.
While outdoors and in cars, GPS is the prevailing location technology. Indoor location technologies have to get more creative. The most common is Wi-Fi-based location and tracking solutions. These typically rely on repeated sampling of signal strength and a map of the location of Wi-Fi routers, each of which transmits a unique ID. Other methods include Bluetooth low-energy (BLE), which sends packets of information only when in range of another device and visible light communication (VLC), which uses LED light fixtures to communicate a unique light pattern, using less energy than beacons.
Although indoor mobile mapping requires a much higher level of accuracy, the resulting maps form a strong foundation on which LBS can operate.
Many consumers have become reliant on LBS applications in their daily lives. However, the business drivers are mostly on the side of retailers and service providers, who gain access to millions of eyeballs, as well as massive amounts of very detailed, real-time data on consumer behaviors that they can use to target them very precisely. Consumers have come to expect messages tailored to their personal interests, specific to their location, and relevant to what they are doing when they receive them.
A good example is Waze, a community-based traffic and navigation app that enables users to share information on traffic conditions, accidents, construction work, etc. Founded in 2008 as an outgrowth of open source projects, it was bought by Google in 2013 for $1.1 billion and now has 65 million monthly users worldwide. Waze knows where all its users are and where they are going and makes money by selling location-based advertising as well as the raw road data collected by its users. Meanwhile users are able to get the most up-to-date information about their routes.
The future of LBS is tied directly to the proliferation of sensors and of Internet-connected devices—from thermostats to refrigerators to cars—known as the Internet of Things (IOT). By constantly collecting data, the IOT will create much richer environments for location-aware technology. The IOT is also spurring the development of low power sensors, which, in turn, are enabling new applications that are found indoors or have insufficient power to make use of GPS.
As the number of beacons, Wi-Fi routers, etc. grows rapidly and mobile devices use multiple technologies to derive their location, the accuracy of indoor location—and, thus, the opportunities for LBS—will continue to grow. The next generation will no longer talk about LBS. It will be a standard component of our fully connected lives.