PanGo Knows Where You are

By Gerry Blackwell

September 17, 2003

This Pittsburg company is pioneering the Wi-Fi market for location-based applications and services.

Audio guides at museums and galleries are old hat, but visitors to London's Tate Modern gallery -- home to some of the wildest modern art on the planet -- can take advantage of a unique multimedia guide that uses Wi-Fi-enabled iPAQ PDAs from Hewlett-Packard to deliver, audio, video and text and graphics content.

What makes the Tate PDA guides truly unique is that they know exactly where you are in the gallery and will present information relevant to that room. The system, which won an award for technical innovation in Interactive Entertainment from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, uses wireless "locationing" technology from Pittsburgh-based PanGo Networks.

PanGo hopes location-based applications are the next big thing in Wi-Fi.

"Over the last three to four years, the WLAN infrastructure has reached critical mass," notes marketing vice president Rick Thompson. "Folks have deployed their networks, now they're looking for ways to differentiate and enhance them."

The PanGo technology is mainly server-based software -- there are no wireless-related hardware components, though there is optional thin-client software. At the heart of software is a process that creates and stores location "fingerprints" for specific precise areas in a facility.

The technology works by measuring signal strength from a client device at multiple access points -- not just the one with which it will associate in that location, but others nearby as well. Algorithms analyze this information to create a data fingerprint, which is stored in a database.

When a connected device turns on or moves, the PanGo system measures signal strength data and compares it against the stored fingerprints looking for a match. "It can be very reliable," Thompson says, "with 100-percent accuracy down to room-level granularity."

PanGo is focusing for now on three broad application areas: location-based network access, intelligent information management (e.g. the Tate guide) and wireless asset tracking. There are lots of others, Thompson says.

"People get very excited about the possibilities of locationing," he says. "But we're trying to take this from a market-driven perspective. These applications respond to real needs in the marketplace right now."

Location based network access is a good example. The problem: students sit in classrooms surfing the Web over campus Wi-Fi networks instead of listening to the professor. PanGo's location based access system allows network admins to change access privileges based on time and location. They could even filter content so that only Web sites associated with the course being taught are accessible.

"Higher education is really driving that one," Thompson says. "There's a real backlash now [against ubiquitous Web access] at colleges."

Intelligent information management appeals to sports, entertainment and tourist destinations. Earlier this year PanGo announced a strategic alliance with Kosmo Studios, a firm that creates wireless content for amusement parks, zoos, aquariums and sports arenas -- including the Pittsburg Steelers football club, NBA City and AT&T Webopolis at Disneyland Innoventions.

Hospitals are another key target market. PDA-toting physicians could have patient charts automatically pushed to their PDAs as they walk into a hospital room.

Health care institutions are also a key market for asset tracking technology. In fact, they will likely start with asset tracking because the return on investment is clearer than it is for intelligent information management, Thompson says.

Hospitals expend hundreds of hours of staff time a year looking for wheel chairs, pumps, diagnostic and monitoring equipment and other big-ticket assets on wheels. They also typically maintain a 30-percent excess in inventory on these items to allow for loss and theft.

Wireless asset tracking saves worker time, helps locate sometimes urgently needed equipment more quickly and allows hospitals to reduce inventory, Thompson says.

Many have already installed proprietary wireless asset tracking systems or are seriously considering it. These systems involve attaching a wireless "tag" to the asset. The system can then triangulate the tag's location on demand.

Proprietary systems can cost up to $1 million, though, Thompson says. For hospitals that are already deploying Wi-Fi networks for other applications -- as a growing number are -- adding a PanGo-based asset tracking capability would be "orders of magnitude" less expensive. Plus, the hospital wouldn't have two wireless networks to manage and maintain.

Current Wi-Fi tags -- really just stripped-down NICs -- are about the size of a small stack of business and cost less than $40.

Beyond asset tracking of big-ticket items, there are also possible inventory control applications in retail. The idea would be to tag every item in the store. Taking inventory could be done automatically in seconds. There are huge challenges, though, Thompson cautions. The tags would have to be much, much smaller and much, much cheaper.

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