The Potential for Location

By Adam Stone

April 21, 2003

Ekahau's location technology continues to push into new areas through deals with companies like Symbol and its own software for location-aware site surveys.

Wi-Fi-based location services: The idea sounds counterintuitive at first. After all, if you are sitting in a Starbucks, you probably already know your location. Yet a number of firms are betting on the idea that 802.11-based location-identifying services will find a use in the commercial marketplace.

Wherenet, for instance, offers systems that can track the movement of trailers in a supply yard. By offering real-time visibility of assets throughout the supply chain, the company says, it is possible to enhance efficiency and productivity.

Newbury Networks offers another take on the theme, by establishing a network of identified locations within a facility. Its product can for example provide convention-center guests with specific directions from one wing of the facility to another.

One of the most active players in the field lately has been Ekahau. In March the Finnish firm inked a deal with Symbol Technologies, under which the two will work in close cooperation to embed Ekahau's 802.11b-based indoor positioning technology into Symbol's wireless barcode scanning devices and systems. Symbol plans to release location-based applications later in 2003.

Ekahau also released the first of its own location-enabled applications at the recent CTIA Wireless 2003 trade show. This application combines site-survey data with accurate site location data as recorded by Ekahau's positioning technology. The software will sell for $895 for a standalone product, or $1,545 for a version that works with global-positioning system mapping. The software requires Windows XP or 2000 to run, plus a supported 802.11b card.

In the immediate future, a corporation might find it helpful to chart internal locations in order to manage its wireless devices. "If you know where these devices are inside your infrastructure, you can assign user rights to the network based on location," said Petri Virsunen, director of strategic business development for Ekahau. "So for instance once you leave the building, your Wi-Fi connection could be automatically terminated, or you might have different rights in the lobby or in a meeting room or an office."

Ekahau claims accuracy to within three-and-a-half feet, which in theory ought to be enough to make such applications realistic. In fact, some teams of researchers already have put the system to the test and they say it could do the job.

At Carnegie Mellon University, David Jimison is part of a team working on "augmented reality" prototypes. He is using Ekahau technology as part of a game that combines real-world locations with input from a portable computer. "You would be able to take a mobile computer and walk through different rooms, and depending on where you are in the physical space, you would be moving your avatar in the virtual space," he explained.

Jimison has been testing Ekahau technology as a way to map the coordinates of physical locations to correspond to cyber-spaces. "It has been very easy to map our building area. It took their engineer about an hour to map the building, and after that it could track wherever you were," said Jimison. "I think it's brilliant. I am really excited about it."

Virsunen likewise cites a project under way with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, wherein Ekahau's technology would be used to identify the locations of specific works of art. Given a device that can recognize these locations, a visitor could then enjoy an interactive guided tour.

Analysts meanwhile are withholding their applause. While some acknowledge the potential contained within the technology, they say the commercial applications of that technology are not yet clear.

At Summit Strategies, for example, analyst Warren Wilson considers a commonly-cited usage. "You walk into a store and when you spot something on the shelf that you are interested in, this location-enabled wireless device feeds you information about that item, based on its location," he said. "It is interesting, but I don't know that it is the best way to do that, since the location capability still is somewhat imprecise, even if three-and-a-half feet were feasible," he said.

At the same time, he suggests that the merely presence of so many competitors would seem to bode well for the field. "It is interesting that there are several vendors crowding into that space," he said. "Clearly they all share a sense that there is potential here somewhere."

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