Monday, October 19, 2009

Location Based Services in 2014 - Part 1

The AGI in the UK is currently carrying out a "Foresight Study" to look at where the geospatial industry will be in five years' time. They have asked several dozen people to contribute short reports on different topics, and I was asked to write about Location Based Services. I thought I would publish the current working draft here, and I encourage you to contribute comments and suggestions that I can work into the final version. This is Part 1 of 2.

As an aside, I think that predicting 5 years out for Location Based Services is not unreasonable right now - we have had several significant breakthroughs in the past year or two, and so can make some fairly safe predictions based on widespread adoption of those. Timing makes a lot of difference - 5 years ago we had no Google Earth and no Google Maps (both launched in 2005), so any 5 year geospatial industry predictions back then would have been way off! Of course there will still be plenty of innovations that we don't anticipate too!

For the purposes of this discussion, a location based service is defined as a software-based service where a key element of that service is the current location of the user, derived using location sensing technology. We also consider applications that are based on data derived from users of location based services (such as real time traffic flow information); applications based on sensing the location not of users, but other objects such as vehicles or equipment; and some applications where the location of the user is not derived from sensors (for example applications based on anticipated future location).

Current Position
Location Based Services have been widely touted as “the next big thing” since the late 1990s, just before the dot com bubble burst. We have (finally) seen significant progress in the past couple of the years, with the iPhone in particular bringing location based services to a mainstream audience for the first time. A key limitation with the iPhone currently is that applications cannot run in the background, which rules out an important subset of location based services, those that carry out notifications or other actions proactively based on your current location. Battery life is still a challenge for continuously logging location of a phone, as GPS is relatively power hungry.

Most new phones now have location capabilities. We are also starting to see new capabilities that are very relevant to location based services, including compasses built in to smart phones, and augmented reality applications that combine location awareness, compass and built in camera. These capabilities provide new and compelling user interface capabilities for location based applications.

Anticipated Changes
Location tracking will be pervasive in 2014 – all mobile phones will have location tracking. Location based applications will be able to run in the background, overcoming a key current limitation (this will require improvements in battery technology). Built in compass, camera and augmented reality capabilities will also be on most if not all phones (as a baseline, consider that the proportion of phones with cameras exceeded 70% globally in 2008, with 75% anticipated in 2009).

The great majority of phones will be “smart phones” with capabilities exceeding today’s iPhones, including high quality graphics, touch screens, and the ability to run sophisticated applications (a basic iPhone costs $99 today, and in 5 years we will have had just over 3 iterations of Moore’s Law, so price performance will have improved by a factor of roughly 10).

Crowdsourcing and widespread use of sensors means that a wide variety of good quality and extremely current geospatial data will be available for free, including:
  • Road data, with relevant information for routing, including real time traffic information
  • Footpaths and cycle paths, with relevant information for routing
  • Points of interest such as restaurants, shops, petrol stations, ATMs, etc, plus relevant real time information such as gas prices
Additional types of location sensing technology will be common, including the following:
  • Proximity sensors, for example RFID or Bluetooth, which can detect when two devices are within a short distance of each other. One current example is a smart key, which will cause a car door to open when it is within a short distance. Another might be a Bluetooth device in a museum that displays relevant information, or plays relevant audio, on a smart phone when it is close by.
  • Continuous local sensors, such as WiFi or ultrawideband (UWB). UWB has a much higher degree of accuracy (~30cm) compared to WiFi (meters or tens of meters depending on number of sensors and environment). High precision sensors enable a variety of indoor location based applications that are not possible with GPS.
  • Very inexpensive passive RFID sensors (will be a few cents in this timeframe), which will be used to track huge numbers of inexpensive assets (at discrete points where they can be scanned, for example the entrance to warehouses or stores).
Usage of social networking applications will be highly pervasive. Unlike today, users will be able to maintain one common set of information about their networks of friends and business associates, and share this among multiple applications. This will be important for location related applications, for specifying what aspects of a person’s location information may be shared with whom.

High speed wireless communications networks will be pervasive in most parts of the world. It also seems reasonable to assume that the majority of newer vehicles will include a location tracking device and wireless communications by 2014.

Update: Part 2 discusses the impact of these changes on the geospatial industry, look at various application scenarios, and summarize five key points.


by James said...

Not involved in the foresight thing myself (going on as I write actually) and would be intrigued to see where the business model for geo in general is going; was at similar event with some of the usual suspects earlier in the year when academics bigged up LBS while commercial folk were considerably more cynical! I suspect your Pt 2 will look at the money...

In the meantime my observations would be that (a) (though I wish it were otherwise) I am less sanguine about the evolution in battery technology in the 5 year horizon (and even more so for ambient power scavenging technologies), and (b) it's about timely useful information and not necessarily the 'map' at all. Plenty more of course.....

Am intrigued by what points the assorted foresight souls can agree on for the AGI Awards Dinner....

Tony said...

Hi Peter - just a note that my (fairly) new Palm Pre has background apps and enables continuous location tracking. Stock battery is good for about a day with Wifi turned off. There is a bigger size battery available too. So, while not great at the moment, perhaps that part of your future vision might be here sooner than we think.


Anonymous said...

I just read an article today about how e-ink is going to start working its way into other mobile devices, such as cell phones. Could this end up having a positive impact on the whole battery life issue? Rather than attacking the problem on the power supply side, improve things on the energy consumption side?

Unknown said...

There is one more obstacle here, which is: people are still afraid to share their current locations with other or with web services out there. It's something new to them, and they feel that sharing such info will affect their own safety.
However I believe this will not last forever. I believe people - including me - were also afraid to have their photos online, but then came Flickr and Facebook, and having your photos online became the norm. So I thing may be one location based service will be very attractive to people so that they stat to share their location with it, and then it will be the norm.

Ziv Baum said...

Tarek, I think you are absolutely right with the first part of your assessment. Privacy in location based services is much more important to people and the analogy to Facebook is a bit off - using LBS means you are exposing real time location to the world which is completely different from telling the world what you had for breakfast or what show did you see on TV last night. My company, Zipano Technology (, is creating a platform that will help users of LBS control exactly when, where and with who their location is being shared. We believe that it is an essential part of making LBS successful. Our data shows that usage of LBS (as reflected in an application that we released - Locaccino - DOUBLES when people get this kind of control.