Presence – the new location

There’s a subtle change about to happen to our mobile devices and the way we interact with them.  Today everyone is excited about the use of GPS in mobile phones to inform them of where they are.  That’s about to become old hat.  GPS applications are an interim step in terms of the evolution of location based applications, albeit an immensely valuable one.  But the more important concept is that of presence.

Presence is much more than just knowing where you are – it’s about communicating your presence with friends, the things around you and the web.  It also provides the ability to use that knowledge to determine how your personal devices and applications work.  Presence moves us from the paradigm of the traditional “You are here” sign, which applies to everyone in the area, to the far more personal concept of “I am here”.  It’s the next step in social networking and interacting with the web.  We’re already seeing the beginning of it with applications like Foursquare, Gowalla and Loopt, but they’re only the start, as new technologies will make it even easier to gain an awareness of and invoke conversation with our surroundings.

 Let’s take a simple example – how your mobile phone works.  Regardless of where you are in your daily life, your phone behaves in the same way, unless you specifically make the effort to change it.  So it rings with the same tone, for the same amount of time and at the same volume whether you’re at home, walking in the park, on the train or in the office.  You might have a sat nav application on it, but none of that knowledge about where you are is passed down to the everyday functionality of the phone, because that application sits a long way from the fundamental operation of the phone.  Your phone is your phone, is your phone. 

Presence allows your phone to pick up local information, typically from a short range transmitter that tells it where it is.  When it detects you’re at home it may ring at a different volume from when you’re not.  That may be different again when you’re in the office.  If you’re using apps on it, then you can configure which ones are displayed most prominently based on where you are.  So when your phone detects you’re in the office, you can choose to have work related ones (or work avoidance ones) prominent, whereas when you’re in the mall, it’s your shopping  list or comparison app that is most prominent.  In other words, when you personalise your phone settings you can make them take account of where you are – that’s a key part of presence.

There have been some attempts at implementing presence in the past, using both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.  Where these are installed within products in static locations, such as access points, a mobile device can detect them, remember their unique wireless address and then use this to feed into an application.  However it’s always been a clunky approach, as neither of these standards are designed to provide information about where you are, rather than relying on you to correlate hexadecimal addresses with particular places.

The reason that this is about to change is the advent of Bluetooth low energy.  That’s a new wireless standard that will start appearing in Bluetooth enabled devices next year.  As the name implies, it’s designed to be very low power, but it has some other very important features, one of which is enabling the widescale deployment of presence transmitters. 

It’s one of the key applications that Bluetooth low energy has been designed for.  Presence requires that a static device broadcasts information about itself on a regular basis, typically saying where it is or what it is.  For that to work, the devices that receive these messages must be able to do so without consuming large amounts of power, or they won’t be able to run off batteries.  To achieve this and keep overall power consumption low is surprisingly difficult, but it’s something that the designers of Bluetooth low energy have managed to achieve.

There have been a few commercial deployments of Bluetooth advertising systems, which send messages to Bluetooth phones that are within range of them.  However, these are generally large, complex devices that normally need a broadband link and a mains supply.  That’s why there aren’t very many of them around.  In contrast Bluetooth low energy allows presence transmitters to be made that are small and can run off a single battery for years.  To understand how radical that change is, look at the picture below:


It’s a CR2032 coin cell with a couple of dimes stacked on top of it.  The two dimes represent the size of circuitry that is needed to implement a Bluetooth low energy transmitter which is capable of sending out a set of these presence broadcasts every few seconds, covering a range of 50 metres or more.  The CR2032 cell can power it for around three years.  Each one of these tiny presence transmitter motes can be pre-programmed, or set up when the battery is first inserted.  They don’t need a broadband connection.  They don’t need a power supply.  All they need for deployment is a double sided adhesive pad, or just being placed in a non-metallic piece of shop-fitting.  When manufactured in high volume they should cost no more than a dollar.

From the user perspective, applications on a phone can take advantage of the information these presence motes send and change the way the phone behaves as a result.  The presence broadcasts can be filtered, so that your phone only changes behaviour or acts on the transmitted information when you want.  So specific information can be fed through to complementary applications.

Bluetooth low energy brings a couple of big advantages to presence.  Today the only way to acquire location with any degree of accuracy is via GPS.  That has the shortcoming that it only works outside.  It has a second shortcoming which is rather more subtle, which is that it’s almost impossible for the mobile industry or application developers to innovate with it.  The form and accuracy of the GPS signals, and the specifications that define them are owned by the US government.  There is no way for any development community to change or develop them – they just have to work with what they’re given.  So you get location, location, location (and time), but that’s it.

Bluetooth low energy works anywhere.  It doesn’t need clusters of satellites.  It works wherever you can stick a transmitter mote that’s around the size of a coin.  That means it works inside a shop, an office or a basement just as well as it does when it’s outdoors on a tree or a lamp post.  Moreover, unlike GPS, it’s based on a standard which is developed by the industry which makes the devices that will use it.  So as new use cases appear, the standard can evolve to offer new functionality.  That makes it very attractive to developers, as they feel in control.  It also allows them to tailor the messages they want these devices to send.  They may use the same NEMA format as GPS satellites, providing indoor coordinates to complement the outdoor GPS signals, but they can also provide more information on what is around you, whether that’s the name of the shop, the aisle you’re in at the supermarket, or the band playing in the club.  They also have the ability to provide time sensitive local information if they’re connected to a source of information telling them what is changing.

The biggest change this brings is the ability to provide local information wherever you want for an infrastructure cost of dollars.  Start to think about what you could tell people and their applications if you had a pocketful of these devices to stick onto walls?  It’s not just the obvious thinks like knowing where you are, but how you can interact with it and then share that information with your social networks.

If you’re using, or developing for today’s location sensitive applications, like Gowalla, Foursquare or Loopt, start thinking about what you could do with these if you had granularity of location information within a building or even a room?  It opens up new possibilities for designers of multi-player games (read Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother to understand why people would want to do that), for advertising, and for adding intelligence to the things we carry with us. 

Presence means we no longer need to decipher where we are and tell our devices.  They will know just as well as we do, and will be able to change the way they work to make them best suited for wherever that may be.  It lets them use that knowledge to inform our social networks or the way we interact with our environment.  So you’ll be able to use Twitter’s Places feature to let friends know exactly which shop you’re tweeting from.  Applications like Foodspotting will automatically include the restaurant name with each photo, making it much, much easier to use.  That ability to tag a photo with a location when you’re inside is likely to make applications like this much more compelling.

Of course, it will need a critical mass of presence transmitters, and we’ve yet to see who will provide and deploy them.  Some property managers, such as mall owners may provide them.  It makes sense to build them into every new shop sign.  It will be interesting to see whether companies like Localeze, who provide the location based search engine behind services like Twitter will expand their business offering to include supplying companies registering on their database with presence transmitters.  And also whether existing location search providers deploy them to extend their coverage and applications.

For developers, it opens up a new era of innovation.  The phones and devices will start appearing in 2011.  Now’s the time to begin imagining what you can do with them.  Stop worrying about where you are and start thinking about how you will interact with your surroundings.