Feature Story

The Evolving Context-Aware Ecosystem: Location, Proximity & Privacy

by Melissa Jun Rowley

A look at how context-aware computing is changing life for the connected consumer.

Imagine living your life day to day with the most loyal, personal companion—one that pays the utmost attention to your habits, anticipates your needs, makes the best recommendations, and provides valuable information about your surroundings at any give moment. This isn't your spouse, your assistant or your BFF. This trusted right hand is your smartphone—smart being the operative prefix. Thanks to context-aware computing, an onslaught of apps, and the rise of mobility, an emerging context market is poised to reshape retail for merchants and reality for consumers.

According to Gartner, context-aware technologies are expected to make a  $96 billion dollar impact on annual consumer spending across the globe by 2015. Gartner also predicts that in 2013 more than half of Fortune 500 companies will have context-aware computing initiatives.

For marketers, having access to a consumer's profile is no longer enough. It's all about context—a person's specific situation, environment, and preferences are all taken into account. Context-aware advertising platforms, more specifically location-based services coupled with real-time data integration, are able to directly alert customers about special offerings when they are near or inside a store. Thanks to the advent of geotagging, and indoor positioning technology, location is at the fore of context-aware computing in B2C scenarios.

What are the benefits of digitally mining context for consumers?

While location-based services provide valuable context for businesses and get customers some perks, both businesses and consumers can benefit and gain a deeper knowledge of their surroundings when the proximity of what or who is nearby, is the primary context provided. Through enabling users to tag people and things in their physical space, and monitoring radio waves (Wi-FI, Bluetooth, NFC) in that area, the proximity platform NewAer automates smartphones to perform specific tasks  taking place among those waves.

So in real life this means:

1. Someone can tag and can park their car, knowing he or she might forget where they parked.

2. That user's smartphone notices Bluetooth going away and sees a signal of a Starbucks he or she parked beside.

3. A pin will instantly drop on a map where that car is parked, without using GPS.

NewAer CEO Dave Mathews says that for NewAer location is elastic and not necessary.

"When you search Google, location information is being used to help with the results," said Mathews. "Can you imaging using a map and it not taking into consideration where you are?  Our platform allows apps to have that sort of granularity of filtering, but using proximity versus location.  We can get even more macro in the data, and allow users to keep their location private."

How much of our lives will context-aware computing affect?

For users who want to stay on time and organized via context-aware technology, SRI International recently launched Tempo AI, a smart mobile calendar that pulls together contacts, e-mails, documents, and all the data a person needs to be fully prepared for meetings and events.

Mikael Berner, co-founder and CEO of the recently launched, context-aware app Easilydo, says in time, context-aware computing will begin to infiltrate almost every facet of every digitally connected consumer. Easilydo taps user-generated data to get things done for people.

"Many of the context-aware tasks that consumers perform are based on information that is readily available online, such as finding restaurant suggestions or mail carrier services in a foreign city," shared Berner. "Contextually-aware computing is most beneficial to consumers when the service proactively searches and presents tasks and information that users plan to perform, before they think to do so. Companies like Easilydo are taking it a step further by actually automating those tasks for their users, as well."

What does context-aware computing mean for privacy?

"You can argue that privacy is dead, thanks to all of the digital devices that we carry," said Mathews. "In fact, your credit card company and mobile phone carrier know everything about you to the ultimate degree. We [NewAer] aim to be ‘Switzerland' with our knowledge and keep your applications intelligent without knowing who or where you are specifically."

Berner says that over time, privacy concerns may subside.

"A few years ago, Amazon and Netflix recommendation engines brought context-aware computing to the forefront and made consumers very happy with relevant suggestions," he said. "Companies have been reluctant to share information that can be helpful in other ecosystems, but that's beginning to change. Similarly, users have been reluctant to share personal data and grant access to their social graphs. However, in the next five years, we expect to see the information boundaries begin to break down around individuals' actions online and in the physical world, due to users' willingness to share information on smartphones."

In the overarching digital world, they say content is king. Perhaps in the mobile world, context is key.


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