Phones

This Smartphone Tracking Tech Will Give You the Creeps

Wifarer

Wifarer is another company using IPS. Unlike Google, which so far provides only indoor maps and location awareness to users, Wifarer wants to give its users heaps of content, discounts, and deals related to where they are located.

The company says that its service is essentially a private, customized version of Google’s IPS offering that lets venues control the content, the branding, and various ways to make money from their digital space.

The Wifarer app for Android gives users heaps of content, discounts, and deals related to where they are located. Image: Courtesy of Wifarer
The Wifarer software works with Wi-Fi systems that exist in public places such as malls, museums, and airports--that is, any location where it might help you to know your whereabouts so as to better find your way and receive relevant information or offers.

If you have the Wifarer app installed on your Android phone (Apple has yet to allow the app into its ecosystem), the fingerprint radio frequency-based system determines your phone’s position within a few feet of where you’re using it.

Currently beta testing in 25 venues, Wifarer expects to be up and running in 400 additional places by the end of this year.

“One of the things about indoor positioning systems is that they open up a new vein of [intellectual property],” says Wifarer CEO Philip Stanger. That means IPS is seeing a tremendous amount of development; Stanger says that some exciting things will be coming down the pipeline in the next several months to a year.

He won’t divulge what those developments might be, although they could include inventions such as displays that employ augmented reality and are triggered by users’ locations.

Stanger, like many other people in the business of phone-finding technology, maintains that his product keeps user privacy intact.

“Without giving away core IP and proprietary processes, I can say that the app calculates and displays its own positioning and location information entirely from within the app. This occurs when the app is turned on, and only when the app is turned on,” Stanger says. “Upon first download, a new user is given an anonymous user ID, and neither their MAC ID nor their IMEI number is ever recorded, monitored, or tracked. From then on, all transactions with and downloads from our system are identified by this UI (user ID) alone. Occasionally, and only when the app is on, location information of the UI is reported back to the system, mainly to verify positioning accuracy.”

The fact that Wifarer works at all is pretty impressive, considering the technical hurdles involved.

“The challenges are many, but most revolve around the variability of Wi-Fi due to environmental considerations,” Stanger says. “For instance, most Wi-Fi broadcasts at around 2.4GHz. Unfortunately the resonating frequency of water is also 2.4GHz, and people are comprised of mostly water. So, the more that people congregate, the more the Wi-Fi radio patterns vary. So the question becomes, how can we normalize patterns when the very usage we envisage generates disruptions to those patterns?”

Stanger isn’t saying how his company has done it, only that it involves proprietary coding.

Nokia

Phone maker Nokia is also working on an interesting way to determine location in an indoor environment.

As part of a consortium of 17 technology and media companies, Nokia recently participated in a demo showing how unused portions of the TV spectrum can deliver information to people according to their location.

At the Imperial War Museum hangar in Duxford, UK, Scott Probasco, a Nokia senior manager, shows how a Nokia smartphone can connect to the Internet via TV white spaces and use an app to grab information about the planes on display. Image: Courtesy of Nokia
At the Imperial War Museum hangar in Duxford, UK, Nokia recently showed how a radio system box operating in UHF TV bands can connect to a TV white-space database to pinpoint which TV channels are available. From there, a Nokia smartphone can connect to the Internet via the TV white space and use an app to grab content. In the case of the museum demo, the content was information about the planes on display.

This type of arrangement would allow museum visitors, for example, to gain access to a vast amount of information about exhibits depending on where they are standing--far more than the museum could ever include on physical signage.

A similar system could be built out to push content to people in other places, such as retail locations; in this case, shoppers could receive offers and coupons, and participate in loyalty programs, just by walking around with an app on their phones.

That isn’t going to happen overnight, however. Before services can use TV white spaces for location finding and content distribution, the necessary technology--including mass-produced chips inside phones and special wireless access points--must be standardized, which likely won’t occur for at least a few years.

In addition, the system isn't terribly precise, as the accuracy is good only at 25 feet to 50 feet. “We can use several well-known methods to refine this coarse location, for example taking signal-strength measurements from several access points and then mathematically combining these signals to estimate the location of the phone a bit more accurately,” says Scott Probasco, a senior manager at Nokia.

Broadcom

Before the end of the year, a new chip made by Broadcom, called the BCM4752, will be integrated in certain mobile devices coming to market. Although the company won’t identify the devices, the technology looks to be pretty mind-blowing.

Broadcom's BCM4752 chip
Designed for smartphones, tablets, portable media players, and portable navigation devices, the BCM4752 chip is a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) product that communicates with the U.S.-based GPS as well as with three of that system’s counterparts--the Russian GLONASS, the in-progress Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) in Japan, and SBAS constellations of satellites.

Access to more satellites means better location awareness, but what’s really fascinating about the Broadcom location platform is that, in addition to supporting IPS through Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC, it integrates measurements from device sensors--the accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and altimeter--into its positioning engine.

Essentially, that means Broadcom’s technology can find your location without being connected to any kind of network. For example, after recording your GNSS coordinates as you enter a building, the technology could continue to track your device’s location simply based on these sensor outputs--how many steps you’ve taken, in what direction you took them, and at what altitude.

According to Scott Pomerantz, GM and VP of Broadcom’s GPS line of business, the technology makes use of intelligent location software known as the Hybrid User Location Application to integrate measurements from GNSS, inertial sensors, its Wi-Fi products, its cellular modem, and many other RF components found in smartphones today.

“We want to be able to do all of the position location locally, not necessarily depending on outside databases or other information; but, just with the device in your hand, we can recognize [the data that is] available and how to render [its] position,” Pomerantz says.

While it’s one thing to have a phone capable of doing incredible things and quite another to build out infrastructure and applications that actually use it, Pomerantz says many location-aware apps will be able to make great use of the BCM4752 chip.

The companies I spoke with represent just a sampling of those carrying out the location tracking of mobile devices. If this topic interests you, check out Polaris Wireless as another example: It provides high-accuracy, software-based systems for finding the location of mobile phones, and it can serve not only for activities like push advertising and social networking but also for asset tracking and fleet tracking, plus lawful interception by government agencies.

How Much Should You Worry About Privacy Issues?

Should it bother you that so many entities can see where you’re using your mobile device, or do features such as vastly improved navigation trump any such privacy concerns?

I posed the question to a couple of experts well versed in the implications of this advanced technology.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst for Enderle Group, sees the tracking of individuals as particularly useful for companies that have high security requirements or have issues with employee theft or time-card cheating. And, he says, when physical danger is an issue, knowing a person’s exact location can mean that help comes faster. “In those instances, when implemented properly, the reward clearly exceeds the risk,” Enderle says.

“The utility and convenience for commercially available location-based services and wireless tracking usage outweigh, at this moment in time, individualistic notions of privacy,” says T. Jeff Vining, VP of government research and geospatial surveillance operational technology for Gartner, a technology research firm. “But when data is aggregated, then it will become a concern for privacy advocates and governments.”

In short, this is a subject you’re going to want to track.

Follow Christina DesMarais on Twitter and Google+ for even more tech news and commentary, and follow Today@PCWorld on Twitter.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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