Find your Friends—with Beacons!

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Think back to the last conference you attended. Or better, the last time you visited the zoo with friends or family. Or the mall. Or a stadium. Chances are, you had to ask or answer a very basic question at least once:

"Where are you?"

It's such a simple question, isn't it? If you're with friends, they probably have your phone number, and you'll end up with a text exchange like this:


Or consider the "family outing" scenario. You trudge to the food court at three-on-the-dot just like you explicitly told your kids, and surprise, you're the only one there. A slew of Where are you? Are you close? texts and phone calls ensue (your panic tricks you into thinking that your teenagers might actually answer a voice call, even though deep down you know better).

Industry conferences and trade shows offer additional challenges. You're trying to meet with customers and colleagues, and arrange face-to-face conversations over email since they don't have your number (and while you'd like to keep it that way, you inevitably give it out to ensure you'll find each other within the crowded venue).

Indoor Location and Mobile Apps

At Aruba, we use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology to power location in mobile apps so we can help answer the question Where am I? and Where am I going? indoors, where GPS signals can't reach. We started by addressing the indoor navigation and wayfinding challenges inherent in large venues like the ones mentioned above. We do this with our Meridian mobile app software and by outfitting a venue with Aruba BLE Beacon hardware. Meridian is the backend hub for all of the app's location-specific maps and content, and the beacon hardware allows the mobile app to calculate its real-time location. The technology enables a user to easily orient themselves by displaying a glowing blue dot on a digital map, or find their way to points of interest in hotels, hospitals, airports and other large public places.


Location Sharing

Now, let's get back to the "Where are you?" question. We already found a way to help people find themselves, so to speak, so helping people find each other seemed like a natural extension of the Meridian mobile app features our customers were already using.

Our Location technology is powered by Beacons. They can be configured for proximity (for instance, to trigger push messaging) or for location (to allow the mobile app to calculate your position indoors).

Using our own Aruba Beacon network hardware, the Meridian engineering team here in Portland built a new Location Sharing API that updates position data in both foreground and background, allowing users to share their current location with others while they are at a particular venue. This API is now available in the Meridian SDK for iOS and Android.

The Meridian AppMaker platform uses this API to power a new "Find my Friends" feature for customers that have an Aruba Beacon deployment.

In our office, for example, when I launch the Aruba Campus app I can find my colleagues in real time on a digital map and access directions to them if needed. You can see below that I'm in the dining area and my "friended" coworkers are located near the Meridian design and engineering departments:


You might be thinking "Don't Apple and Android already allow us to share our location on our phones?" This is true, but—similar to their mapping apps—the feature only works when you are outdoors. Also, Apple and Android's apps are not confined to a particular destination. Realizing that most people don't want their location shared at all times, they subsequently created complex add-on features requiring users to apply constraints and time limits for one-way or bidirectional location sharing.

Parameters Are a Good Thing

Our new Find My Friends feature is fully opt-in and reciprocal. You create a profile, choose to share your location with particular contacts, and those contacts must in turn share their location with you for it to work.

You can remove friends or toggle the feature off and on at any time, but regardless, Location Sharing only works when you are physically present at the venue, because it relies on the venue's Beacon network to power the location.

Here is the exact sequence of how it works (assuming the venue has a Meridian-powered mobile app and an Aruba Beacon deployment):

  1. Launch the app.
  2. Create a profile for yourself.
  3. Invite your friends to share your/their location (the app generates a link that you can send to them via email, airdrop, text, twitter, etc.).
  4. Go and enjoy the museum, mall, conference, etc. and get directions to friends as needed.
  5. Leave the venue and location sharing automatically stops.
  6. Return to the venue and location sharing resumes.

So, for example, let's say you are at a large hotel attending a conference and using their event mobile app to share your location with select colleagues. The moment you leave the conference area, it automatically stops sharing your location. So no one will see you if you slip out to grab coffee, run an errand or when you go home and forget about the app entirely.

Looking Ahead

Personally, this feature couldn't have come at a better time for me; this week, I'm at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas attending Aruba's largest event of the year, Atmosphere. I'm excited to test it out and ultimately spend less time texting over where to find colleagues.

Thinking beyond "Finding My Friends," it will be exciting to see how our SDK customers will build off of our underlying core Location Sharing technology. This could power finding an associate within a large retail environment, or finding a doctor within a hospital campus. I think we will be seeing a lot of compelling industry-specific use cases ahead, but in the meantime, happy sharing!