Wireless location based services will change everything!

(Originally published in ClickZ, July 2001) by Eric Picard

I have to admit that lately I’ve been feeling a little frustrated about the state of wireless when it comes to advertising. The “best” idea I’ve heard on using the space for marketing was to fire Starbucks coupons at customers as they walk by store locations. And that’s just plain stupid. Certainly, using text and graphics to advertise on wireless Web pages will grow and continue, but that’s neither new nor very interesting.

That all changed for me last week. I came across some information about a company called iProx, a small start-up in London focusing on supplying location-based services (LBS) infrastructure technology to wireless providers. It might not sound exciting, but LBS would be the enabling technology to let Starbucks bounce a coupon to a potential customer walking by the store. It is also opens up amazing new opportunities.

Now, I like this company, and I spoke with cofounder and COO Ravi Kanodia during my research for this article; but regardless of whether it is iProx or another company that breaks open this space, this is one of the most exciting technologies I’ve heard about in years.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has mandated that by October of this year, U.S. wireless providers must be able to pinpoint the location of 911 callers from mobile phones within 100 meters. But there’s nothing in the FCC requirements that limits using this technology for 911 calls — and there is a mad dash to provide this capability to the wireless providers.

iProx is the most exciting of those companies that I’ve seen. If it has developed what it claims, we could see a wireless revolution, with thousands of new services and business models coming from it. Not to be clichi, but this could really change everything.

To illustrate why iProx’s solutions are amazing, let me explain how LBS works today. Currently, to be located by an LBS, I need to initiate a call. When I make the call, the wireless provider triangulates my location by cross-checking my location between transmitters. Then my location can be aligned with potential offers that intersect my needs at the moment, and an offer based on location and time can be made.

Logically, we need to be able to continually track the location of users and push information to them based on preselected needs or preferences. Kanodia likens this problem to the need for air traffic control in the aviation industry, because in a wireless network environment there are problems with simply pinging every user’s wireless device at short regular intervals. The wireless networks would simply melt down from the volume of pinging traffic.

iProx has solved this problem through its Correlation Engine, which tests users’ locations based on various criteria, including velocity and the user’s profile. For example, if you are sitting at your desk, not moving, iProx will ping you at very long intervals. But as you start traveling, it pings you more often — and speeds up the interval based on how fast you’re going.

This simple solution makes many amazing things possible, and they go far beyond pushing relevant time- and location-based offers at users.

Here are a few scenarios from an application standpoint.

  • Imagine that you’re on the road traveling and have a 6:00 flight to catch. Because you’re still 50 miles from the airport at 5:45, the airline can automatically cancel your reservation and reschedule you for the next flight (if you signed up for this service).
  • A shipping company could be instantly notified if a valuable truckload of computer chips were to suddenly start moving in the wrong direction. And obviously this is the next generation of LoJack for cars with hard-wired wireless devices.
  • For the first time, it would be possible to value outdoor advertising with unquestionable evidence. Even with the user-identifiable information removed, it would be extremely valuable if Macy’s could learn that of the measurable 10 million people who drove by its billboards last week, 300,000 of them visited Macy’s stores. This could work for any retailer, even the movie industry.

And this opens new vistas of analytics and demographics. For the first time, truly detailed and “clean” demographics can be assigned to populations. The privacy implications aside, this is a huge opportunity for a company to build datasets on human activity at a level that hasn’t been possible before.

iProx has also built a mobile location-aware “buddy list” application on top of its Correlation Engine; the application has integrated mapping and navigation capabilities (from Navigation Technologies). The idea is that you can be notified when one of your buddies has come within a certain distance of you — and instantly shown a map detailing your locations. You would be able to search for your buddies (if they’ve agreed to allow this) as well. Simply run a check as you leave work to see where the gang has gathered, and go meet them.

From an interactive marketing perspective, this feature could be used by marketers to build pools of buddies who could be introduced to each other based on affinity. Additionally, we could fire an opt-in application to any unregistered user as he or she walked into or out of a store location. There are virtually unlimited applications for this technology once it is implemented.

iProx has taken the right approach: Its solutions are vendor agnostic. It can make use of whatever technology is installed by the wireless provider — so, however closely the provider can pinpoint location, iProx will make use of it. And that’s one reason I think it’s onto something.

Start thinking about how you’ll make use of these advertising solutions as they arrive — because arrive they will. It’s only a matter of time.


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