Location, Location, Location

By Ryan Adzima, Blog Contributor
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Location is a hot topic the past couple years in our industry with a slew of major announcements; indoor way-finding and blue-dot navigation, engagement, and analytics paving the way for all sorts of interesting use cases. Navigating (pun intended) the landscape to find the right solution for your customer or company can get pretty hairy if you haven't spent much time in the tech. I'm going to break down some of the key factors you should take into account when looking for any type of location based system to supplement your venue. This isn't a new buying technique but when it comes to new tech sometimes people can get a little bogged down with "But look what it can do!" instead of "Look what it can do for me!"

Use Case

I've been approached in the past with questions from people wanting to stay ahead of the competition by adopting new and exciting technology except they hadn't figured out quite how. Part of my job is to guide them through the process but in my experience, starting with the technology or product and shoehorning it into an environment often fails. Not too long ago, when BLE beacons and Apple's iBeacon came onto the scene, everyone wanted to join in and worry about how to use them later. The issue is that there are several types of location services that can be deployed with varying degrees of difficulty, initial investment, infrastructure, and accuracy - all factors that need to be taken into account when deciding which solution will work for you. From there you can formulate your needs, wants, and nice-to-haves which makes the whole process go much smoother. Once you get that figured out, you can move on to deciding on the architecture.

Where Does It Go?

In general, location solutions can be broken down into two types: infrastructure based and device based. There's quite a bit of overlap between them but both also have their own unique specialties. This is a hugely important thing to consider and depends critically on the very first question you should have asked: Primarily, who will be seeing the information and how do you plan on using the data?

Infrastructure based location systems utilize overlay hardware or existing wireless networks to listen to the environment and forward the information to a backend system for processing. Once the information is in the backend, math happens. Locations are calculated mostly based on the signal strength of the clients in the environment and data aggregation, correlation, and trending information is built. This method is great for tracking assets, recording common trends in the environment that can help with layouts and placement of marketing information (e.g. clients typically travel from area A to area D bypassing areas B and C), or creating heat maps to find where most clients congregate and plan furniture placement, security, or even wireless upgrades accordingly. All of this information can be gathered without any interaction from the clients (other than having their Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth radio on). No apps to install, no splash pages to authenticate against, not even requiring them to connect to the WLAN.

Device based location systems are a bit different in that they do require the users to download an app of some sort but they also require very little infrastructure since nearly all of the calculations and reporting happen on the device itself. When presenting information to the clients themselves, speed is the top priority. Way finding or blue-dot navigation using a device based system can process location as fast as the operating system will allow with no reliance on any connections to appliances or location engines. In a small venue with good Wi-Fi/cellular service this isn't that big of a problem, but when you have a packed convention center or stadium with tens of thousands of people the clients may experience problems reaching the backend or the system may simply become overwhelmed by requests. That sort of speed is crucial; lag can completely ruin the user experience. Apps can also be configured to scan in the background, constantly watching the environment and figuring out where it is to fire off events based on where the user is. These events could be coupons, warnings, or even bits of information about where they are.

But I Want Both!

There's a bit of give and take but there's no reason you can't!

Device based location services can easily be setup (and often are) to report back to a central database. The same reports we see in an infrastructure solution can be applied. The disadvantage is that it will only get information from the devices with the app installed. That just means you should encourage users as best you can to get it and figure out what the uptake percentage is so you can calculate as close to true numbers as possible by scaling the data accordingly.

Infrastructure based systems can most certainly offer app integrations like way finding, blue dot, and engagement (push notifications). As long as the client can reach the systems, it can make the requests and present it to the clients. Just be sure to properly size your network and servers to allow fast access to reduce any delays that might be inherent to this architecture.

Even better than choosing one over the other, why not integrate both? If you're able to gather information from your network and push it into a backend that is also gathering location points from apps installed on devices, correlate that information, and produce actionable data for both your customer or company and the clients throughout the venue, you could have an incredibly powerful tool at your disposal that can be used by many teams throughout an organization.

It All Comes Down to Goals

My first and biggest suggestion when it comes to deciding if you need a location solution and which type to go with is to start at the end and work backwards. Figure out exactly what you want now, may want in the future, definitely don't need, what prerequisites exist, weigh the pros and cons, and then find out which products will meet those needs.