Feb 20, 2013
Hanna-Barbera saw it coming. In 1962, the creators of The Flintstones put forth their vision for the future when they introduced The Jetsons, an animated sitcom about George Jetson and his Space Age nuclear family. Living in the year 2062, George enjoyed infinite comfort and convenience, his life inextricably laced with technology. Instead of newspapers he had the TeleViewer, an interactive screen that blended text with video. Instead of telephones, he had video chat. And instead of driving to work, he commuted in his flying car. Meanwhile, his wife, Jane, delegated the household chores to a small army of smart appliances, including an automatic vacuum cleaner and a humanoid robot named Rosie.
Just 50 years from The Jetsons' epoch, the world still lacks flying cars. However, it has TeleViewers in the form of iPads, video chat courtesy of Skype, and even a robot vacuum thanks to iRobot's Roomba.
Society now also has location technology, similar to the kind that notified Jane when George was almost home from work, and automatically flew the family car to its destination of choice. An evolution of GPS that's known as location-based services (LBS), this breed of technology is evolving with breakneck speed. In just a few short years, it has changed the way the world thinks about and interacts with location.
"Every single new 21st-century data source contains location," said Simon Thompson, director of global business solutions at GIS software company Esri. "This is creating massive amounts of data about people...and what you're now seeing is quants moving from financial services and Wall Street into marketing, real estate, and [other] areas in order to tell you what you can get by mining all this data."
Thompson describes the simultaneous proliferation of social media, location-aware technology, and mobile device usage (SoLoMo) as a perfect storm of geospatial potential.
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera fantasized about such potential with The Jetsons. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, on the other hand, outright predicted it: "Perhaps in 30 years the orbital relay system may take over all the functions of existing surface networks and provide others quite impossible today," Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, wrote in a letter to his friend, Andrew G. Haley, in 1956. "For example, the three stations in the 24-hour orbit could...make possible a position-finding grid whereby anyone on earth could locate himself by means of a couple of dials on an instrument about the size of a watch...It might even make possible worldwide person-to-person radio with automatic dialing. Thus no one on the planet need ever get lost or become out of touch with the community, unless he wanted to be. I'm still thinking about the social consequences of this!"
The social consequences are stunning—particularly in the context of the mobile web, which becomes more bloated each day with cutting-edge applications capable of collecting, analyzing, and utilizing location data. With immediate benefits for individuals and businesses, and promising applications in government and defense, LBS is poised to turn one's physical coordinates into a digital key that unlocks a new era of personalized commerce even a Jetson would envy.
Since the dawn of the iPhone in 2007, smartphone ownership has spread exponentially. In 2012 alone, smartphone ownership among American adults rose to 46 percent from 35 percent the year before, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
Growing equally fast are mobile apps. The share of adult cellphone owners who had downloaded an app nearly doubled from 22 percent in 2009 to 38 percent in 2011, according to Pew. Taking into account adults whose phones came pre-loaded with apps, more than 50 percent of all U.S. adult cellphone owners now have apps on their phones—many of them location-enabled. In fact, the number of U.S. adults who get location-based information on their smartphones has nearly doubled in the last year, growing from 23 percent in 2011 to 41 percent in 2012, according to Pew.
"This is a space that's heating up a lot right now...there's an instinct that [LBS] is going to be a really big deal for smartphones in the same way that GPS was a really big deal for [navigation]," said Dan Ryan, founder and CTO of indoor positioning company ByteLight. "In the future, you can imagine a situation where you walk into a retail store and your phone leads you to a particular product. Or maybe you pull out your phone in front of an exhibit you like at a museum and it pushes you some content about that exhibit. The whole idea of geospatial-aware computing has everything to do with making computing more relevant and more useful."
Relevance means context, according to Thompson, who says LBS is evolving beyond "location"—latitude and longitude—to accommodate "geography" and "place."
"Your geography is your distance from a location, how far you've traveled to get there and whether it's your home location or your place of business," Thompson explained. "Place is who is here and what they are doing. If I know at this location there happens to be a cinema that's part of an outdoor mall, I now have a whole contextual understanding of the people who are there and why they might be there."
Anywhere is Possible
For consumers and businesses alike, SoLoMo represents a technological U-turn, according to Thompson, who says the Great Recession catalyzed a social and economic movement from "global" to "local."
"Location has become a mechanism to enable hyperlocal business intelligence," Thompson said. "A business that wants to grow in a slow-growth economy has a couple of choices: It can expand its footprint and hope to reach the mass market, which is the Coke and Pepsi model, or it can be very, very focused on operating in the most profitable areas and locations...We're moving away from living in clone towns where we're given the same shops and the same media and the same merchandise. Historically, mass-merchant brands used technology to out-compete small brands and local businesses, but now those local businesses can exploit and use technology in exactly the same way, so we're seeing a renaissance of local flavors."
SoLoMo isn't just localizing commerce. It's also localizing information, according to Charlie Davies, director and co-founder of British LBS company iGeolise.
"When the Internet began, it was all about how amazing it was that you could read content no matter where you were in the world," Davies said. "That spreading of content was great because it disengaged people from their actual environment. LBS has helped re-engage people in and around their local area. As a result, the Internet that was supposed to break away local boundaries is now securing them."
Simply put: After two decades of retreating into the virtual world, people are using LBS to rediscover the physical one.
"The moment you get in your car and drive somewhere, you are by definition bound to your physical environment in a way you're not when you're surfing your iPad," said Lise Murphy, vice president of marketing at Wifarer Inc., a Canadian provider of indoor positioning technologies. "That's an undeniable aspect of being human. You live in a specific place and you go to specific locations. So why not develop apps and technology to enhance your experience in physical spaces?"