Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Location-based WIFI as the next step

It’s time to go beyond thinking of WIFI access points as single entities. It’s time to go the next step and leverage access points as part of a location-aware network.

Here’s the thing: Access points broadcast and receive signals omni-directionally. That’s fine for many situations. You want coverage in as many places as you can from a single point. However, drop by any apartment building or maybe even your own home or office, and there are sure to be lots of WIFI signals eminating from the area.

In these signal crowded areas even if you did supply an open network for visitors or customers, who would know which network to join? Good naming is OK, but the issue suggests a solution that partially solves the public network issues but also provides other opportunities too. It’s all about multiple access points working as a location-aware based network.

Here’s the idea in a nutshell: Let’s say you want to provide open WIFI to those in your store. And I mean inside your store. Not the store next door. Not those standing out front blocking the door. Just the customers indoors. You can’t easily do this right now. Yes, you can have public networks, but they can look like any other network. If instead we had location-aware public networks that our devices are tuned to, we could readily separate out the private from the public. And as long as networks spaces don’t overlap, you can only be in one place at a time, so you’re only going to be concerned about one network. Joining a private network will take an extra step. A public one shouldn’t.

Location is King. Not the signal. Especially in public.

Don’t misunderstand. This idea isn’t about creating the ultimate security feature. It would be defeatable. You could spoof location. However, for the baseline system it provides one more way to better manage public access. A doctor might provide one public network for its waiting area and let’s say another for current patients in a chemo room. Other office networks wouldn’t even appear, because by definition they aren’t open, because they’re not location aware.

And then let’s take something like a school room as an alternative twist. One room could have access turned on, another off. Same goes for an office building. Maybe open WIFI is only available in certain conference rooms or the lobby. Everywhere else it’s not available.

Notice how an approach like this changes WIFI usage from the user’s perspective. When you visit a store, you know the WIFI is coming from that store. When you visit a doctor’s office, you know it’s coming from that office.

When you walk into an area you won’t see a slew of WIFI networks that you don’t have the passwords for anyway and you may never be sure who’s providing what.

To me, it’s not just about easier managed public access. A location-aware system like this opens up new possibilities for all kinds of devices. How? By leveraging parts of this system we could have the backbone of indoor positioning systems that any WIFI-based device (ranging from cameras to Robots) could use to determine its exact location and heading within the access points.

We already have crude indoor positioning systems, but bring in the ability to measure a device’s location within inches and heading within degrees and you have some new possibilities with intelligently tagging content as I’ve blogged before. This could be a huge game changer in organizing indoor generated content and yes, search.

How would this work? I’ll defer to the EEs. To work well, it would require some changes to how the radios currently operate. But with the right silicon you have some very interesting and practical possibilities.