Ever Expanding Universe of Location-Based Services
Location-Based Services refers to services using the locating capabilities within a cell phone or other mobile device, or using an RFID or RTLS tag attached to an object, vehicle, or person. The variety of existing and emerging services is mind-boggling:
· Tracking and Locating Assets and Resources
- Packages, Pallets, Containers - tracking their location and finding them as they move through supply chains, warehouses, ports, yards, and other facilities.
- Dispatching vehicles - finding the nearest taxi cab, or service vehicle with the right tools and skill set, etc.
- Instantly locating mobile hospital equipment such as IV pumps, wheel chairs, beds.
- Tracking of trains, ships, and trucks in transit. By extension, you track all the goods onboard.
- Boats and ships have used GPS for decades to safely and accurately navigate open seas and shallow waters.
- Locating expensive tools and valuable parts or supplies in large manufacturing plants, airports, construction sites, oil fields, and other large sites with lots of stuff.
- Location-encoded photos of products or anything for that matter including people and landscapes, providing "proof of location." Photos can show items in a specific location and condition (e.g. undamaged or damaged goods with longitude/latitude recorded on the image).
- Farmers use location-based services to guide their vehicles across fields during planting, fertilizing, spraying, and harvesting. Precise navigation reduces overlap and gaps, lowers fertilizer and pesticide costs, minimized environmental footprint, and provides accurate reports and real-time verification of all the activities.
· Tracking and Locating People
- Doctors and other skilled people - finding the person with the right skills nearest to the location they are needed.
- Patient tracking in hospitals, from admission through discharge.
- Locating family members - for example, some ski resorts have offered this for years, helping parents keep track of where their kids are and helping the ski patrol quickly find someone who is lost or injured.
- More examples below under safety (e.g. elder/infant monitoring) and personal services (e.g. location-based social networking).
· Safety and Security
- E911 service with cell phones - dispatchers instantly know the location of callers in an emergency call.
- Locating miners, oil refinery workers, and others during rescue operations when a disaster strikes (mine collapse, explosion or fire, earthquake, etc.)
- Theft prevention and location services for stolen vehicles, laptops, etc. (e.g. LoJack)
- "Panic button" emergency call device - college students, elders, and other exposed persons can press a button on a device they carry if they're in trouble; the police, medics, or rescuers know where to find them.
- Geofencing for trucks - an alert is sent when a truck goes outside the explicit route that it is supposed to travel on; this could be a theft in progress (or driver visiting his girlfriend).
- Elderly or infant monitoring - alert when elders or toddlers wander off.
- Proximity alarms - for example if two dangerous chemicals are not supposed to be stored next to each other because they react violently together, an alarm goes off if they are brought too close. Or an unauthorized person enters a dangerous zone they shouldn't be in.
· Personal/Consumer services
- Finding nearby businesses and services - "where's the nearest gas station, Starbucks, ATM, etc."
- Finding nearby products in stock - "who has a 42" plasma T.V. in stock nearby and at what price?"
- Location-based social networking - let your friends know where you are, so they can meet you or just keep in touch. Location becomes one more dimension to twitter-like tracking of what my friends are up to right now. In fact, since last November, twitter has allowed users to optionally have their location information appended to their tweets.
- Locate tourist attractions - when visiting an unfamiliar city, guide to nearby restaurants, museums, parks, shows/theater, night clubs, concerts, etc. that are near where you currently are or expect to be.
- Turn by turn directions - Most of us have used these devices from Garmin, Tom Tom, et al. These can also include real-time traffic alerts, based on where you are and where you're going, suggesting alternative routes.
- Personal weather reports, based on your location.
- Hikers can create routes and view their current location on maps.
- Toll collection systems - automatic payment based on the location of your vehicle, i.e. where you drove.
· Marketing and Sales
- Delivery of coupons, promotions, ads for nearby locations.
- Tracking the path of consumers through stores, malls, parks, or other venues, to understand how people navigate, interact, and buy. Useful to improve the layout and optimize the location of products, booths, paths and other aspects of the venue.
- Location-based loyalty services - E.g. FourSquare and Gowalla combine social networking, user generated content, games, and mobile marketing - users add "spots" and activities as they visit various locations, tell friends where they are, rate locations, get points for loyalty, become the "mayor" by visiting a location more than anyone else, etc.
Keep in mind this is only a partial list; a fraction of what's already available. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination and what the marketplace wants.
Why Now: A Convergence of Factors
People have been predicting for over a decade that location-based services are about to take off. A few of these applications (such as toll collection or GPS navigation) have seen widespread adoption for some time, but up to this point there have been only pockets of adoption for the vast majority of LBSs. So why is now the time? A number of factors are in place. While some have been in place for over a decade, they were necessary but not sufficient. The sum total of all these factors together has created "critical mass."
1) E-911 (US) and E112 (Europe) - Way back in 2000 the FCC mandated that wireless carriers must be able to transmit the location of callers who dial 9-1-1. But it has taken the better part of a decade to reach ubiquity where now virtually all phones can report their own location to the carrier.
2) Widespread integration of GPS into phones - Over a quarter of all new phones have built-in GPS and the penetration is much higher in smart phones. (See Figure 1 below). That's several hundred million new GPS-enabled phones each year. GPS provides much more precise location data than the cell tower trilateration-based approach or other methods used in older phones. A-GPS (Assisted GPS) combines capabilities in the cell network to allow much faster startup performance than GPS alone.
3) Plunging cost of the devices - The era of cheap cell phones has been around for a few years and now very capable smart phones are very affordable. The era of almost free GPS is now also here. Driven by the very high volumes of GPS (over half a billion new devices this year) in phones, vehicles, and personal navigation devices, the cost of GPS has plummeted. A couple of decades ago, a GPS unit cost tens of thousands of dollars. Now integrated GPS circuits are available for under $1. This has become a self-feeding spiral of lower cost and higher adoption, where GPS hardware gets closer and closer to free.
4) Plunging cost of mobile service - cellular service costs have dropped from dollars to pennies per minute.
5) Inexpensive or free GIS (Geographic Information Systems) - The GIS systems that contain map data used to be very expensive proprietary systems that were used primarily for engineering or other high-end business applications. Google maps with APIs allowing mashups, and other online mapping services has changed all that. Basic GIS is now free.
6) Internet access on the cell phone - price of cellular data services has plunged.
7) Ubiquity of devices - Now almost everyone has a cell phone and many people are very comfortable using various mobile applications.
8) Maturity of location-based applications - Brand new location-based applications often emerge with many rough edges. We now have a critical mass of mature location-based services and applications that have been around for half a decade or more. Those are field tested and have dramatically improved.
Figure 1 - GPS-Enabled Phone Penetration
The end result is we have critical mass along the key dimensions: a critical mass of location-enabled mobile phones, critical mass of end users comfortable with those devices and services, and critical mass of really good LBS applications. For all those reasons, we think many location-based services will see very strong growth in 2010.
In part two of this article series, we will take a look at some of the providers of the various location-based services and associated technologies.
See also: Location-Based Services Poised for Rapid Growth - Part 2
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