Are Indoor Location Services Finally Taking a New Direction?

When Ekahau first started, one of the cool things they offered was the ability to do real time location based on a bunch a little tags. It was cool to see Wi-Fi being adapted to be used as a technology that could help you keep track of things and people as well as giving you a hand finding things.

RFID comes into the picture

As RFID took off in warehousing and other markets, location proved to be a valuable asset, but it seems to only really be spectacular for the people that needed it the most. Sure there were other industries that found benefit in it (marathons!) but the core customer groups were the biggest winners here.

Wi-Fi for location services

As Wi-Fi started to make more of an entrance into our daily lives attempts like Ekahau and others keep popping up, but then came BLE.

BLE finds it’s way into our lives

BLE began popping up as a way to help give you more granularity than Wi-Fi for location services, wayfinding and maybe even asset tracking. Following Apple’s lead with iBeacons, companies like Estimote, Meridian, and others started arriving, giving you the ability to very easily implement BLE solutions.

Making BLE deployments simple, but terrifyingly expensive

When Aruba acquired Meridian and made designing BLE apps absolutely simple, I thought it was going to be one of those defining moments for a new technology. The only problem that Aruba still hasn’t figured out (just like what they’re doing with the Cape acquisition) is the price point. It’s an incredible technology and could be one of the most widely deployed, but no one who wants it can afford it.

There’s something in the air..

The vBLE array in a Mist AP

Once Mist stepped up and integrated, in my opinion, one of the most incredible uses of BLE with their vBLE components, it finally seemed like BLE was actually gonna be a thing. The only problem was there was no service like Meridian for Mist. Another misfire for wide adoption.

So where does that leave indoor location services?

All in all, there’s been a really cool upward trend of people using wireless for location-based services over the past 20 or so years. As technology advances and people find more uses for it, there’s been some really cool adaptations along the way. Peter Thornycroft Gave a presentation at Aruba Airheads in 2015 that provided an incredible peek into indoor location services. It showed that it *can* be successfully deployed and it *can* be used to accomplish tasks, but just like in 2015, none of it has hit the mark yet to be widely deployed and actually usable as an everyday technology. What’s it gonna take for this stuff to go mainstream?

802.11mc and rethinking how to find stuff using Wi-Fi signals

Recently, Google announced support for 802.11mc in version 9 of the Android operating system. This next generation locationing iteration uses Wi-Fi signal time-of-flight or RTT (round-trip time) as opposed to RSSI for things you’re trying to track to give you a more accurate understanding of where those devices are using WiFiAware (introduces in Android 8) and your relation to them or an AP.

How does 802.11mc work

The concept is pretty simple: if you calculate how long it takes a signal to reach an AP and return to the initial transmitter, multiply it times the speed of light to get distance and divide that by 2, you get range. The more places you can get more readings from, the more accurate your location assessment becomes. The AP or device operates in bursts of 8 of these measurements to get a mean reading as well as variance. Now 802.11mc isn’t a function of Wi-Fi per se, but it can be supported by the Wi-Fi access points (since it’s using the signals) and beacon out its support for mc to let clients know it’s available for ranging. Pretty cool huh?

Image via:
http://people.csail.mit.edu/bkph/ftmrtt_intro

Things seem to be going in the right direction

So now you have a standard supported by an OS to communicate with other Android phones, but where are the devices supporting 802.11mc so that you can use your infrastructure to locate and track those devices?

But who’s leading the way?

The first out of the gate is Google Wi-Fi. If you have an Android phone running Android 9 or later and Google Wi-Fi, there could be some apps that may leverage it.

But what about enterprise devices?

Aruba

Aruba has mentioned that their WiFi6 APs May have future support for it, but nothing announced yet.

Cisco / Meraki

Cisco has a really cool presentation online discussing the use of location service but I can’t find any product information.

Meraki forums talk about a firmware release to support it, but I haven’t seen it yet.

Mist

Mist, who I thought would’ve been all over it said when promoted by Lee Badman at the last mobility field day something to the effect of “we’ll watch what the clients are looking for an adapt to that.”

Extreme, Ruckus, Ubiquiti, EnGenius, etc

Crickets from all of em.

One more thing…

Look closely. I see U.

On September 10, 2019, at the launch for the iPhone 11, Apple had a gem hiding on the screen when they were talking about some of the new features of the iPhone 11. That was the apple U1 chip.

Twitter blew up with people asking about it, and it a far corner of the Twitterverse, a member of the dev team virtually screamed at the top of his lungs:

The U1 is an Ultra Wideband (UWB) chip specifically designed to let you know where things are, transfer data at extremely high speeds across really large swath of RF spectrum, and leverage an incredibly sensitive and hyper contextual real time location services technology, built into the hardware of the iPhone.

Again, it’s built into the hardware.

This isn’t some new software feature that they just programmed in, it’s and entirely new chip that’s built specifically for location and indoor services for relative distance and bursts of huge amounts of throughput.

This, again, seems to be a great turning point for the industry. Now we don’t only have Android supporting a standard, but we have Apple doing what Apple does and creating their own world, complete with hardware to do some impressive stuff. This level-up is taking all these two decades of work where people have been trying to figure out how to find out where things are and transfer a bunch of data to them quickly and it’s building in some hardware to specifically handle that.

Moving location services into our homes

There is speculation is that it will be used for VR experiences to understand room sizes and where people are in proximity to each other or the space. If Google is supporting 802.11mc via Google Wi-Adi in our homes, you know apples going to want to take a bite out of that.

It’s already been announced that it’s going to be for beaming airdrops to specific people in a crowd and I’m sure a ton of other applications to come. When combined with the Apple Tag announcement that some were expecting, and if they are actually just asset tags or instead some type of base device to provide the ping/pong to determine location, it’s about to get cool.

So what? Where’s the infrastructure?

The key for wide deployment and usage, at least to me, is making sure that there are actually devices that can use the infrastructure and they’re at a price point where is economically feasible to do so. Sure the capability is built into an iPhone, but which APs or devices will support communication with the U1 to help identify its position other than another iPhone?

Whatever the case, if it does get wide support, this absolutely changes the conversation on how we are going to implement location services and what will be possible because of that. With the functionality built in to the devices we carry on a daily basis and hopefully a more economical way to implement infrastructure to support it, locating people and objects could finally be realized.

Where do we go from here?

I don’t even have any concept of how incredible this can be because I think it is going to change the way that we interact with every device in our lives. Kudos to the Apple team for putting this into the phone, and congratulations on taking the next step in the location in journeys to help us all figure out where we belong.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s