Connecting the Location Dots

By Adam Stone

January 21, 2005

National Scientific says Wi-Fi is the natural extension to tracking things GPS-style when indoors—assuming there's a business case for it and the batteries hold out.

In the good old sci-fi future, as envisioned in our paranoid post-war 1950s, everything was going to be known. You could never hide from a Power that could track your every move. Now it's half a century later, the Cold War has packed up and left, and the fear of location tracking has turned instead to hope.

If technology can help us figure out where stuff is from one moment to the next, today's thinking says, that is not oppression but progress. That's business becoming more intelligent and more efficient. And that's what Graham Clark does. As president of National Scientific in Scottsdale, Ariz., he puts the company's business proposition succinctly: "We track things."

The company does this in a number of ways and with a range of technologies including GPS, RFID and Wi-Fi. Specifically, the company's Wi-Fi Tracker tag uses 802.11 networks in conjunction with position-enabling software to provide precision tracking and location information or people, equipment and other assets within existing WiFi networks.

Clark says wireless LAN is the natural choice for indoor tracking needs. "If you are inside a building, GPS does not work, but you can use a Wi-Fi enabled environment to track location indoors," he said. "If for instance you are a doctor in a hospital, it may be important that your staff knows where you are. It may be important that the x-ray machine is relatively available." His technology would hang a location-tracking tag on that doctor or machine, and then use Wi-Fi to relay that location information back to a central information station.

Clark argues that the cost of a Wi-Fi solution should come in considerably lower than a solution based on competing technologies. "The major advantage Wi-Fi has is that the access points are becoming pervasive," he said. "With RFID you need dedicated infrastructure, whereas the whole concept of using Wi-Fi is that the access points are already deployed anyway."

All of which sounds very promising on the technological side, analysts say. But some question the business premise here.

Wal-Mart has shown that RFID works fine for inventory tracking, and really, what else is there to track indoors except inventory, wonders Eddie Hold, a wireless analyst with research firm Current Analysis in Sterling, Va. Some businesses might have mobile equipment in use, he conceded, "but we've survived without tracking these things for so long, do we really need to spend money to do it? That is what most companies are going to grapple with. Is it really a huge time saver? Is there really a need that justifies the cost of doing this?"

Others question the significance of a technology that is only being used to carry data around. In this case Wi-Fi serves to deliver location data to those who need, but it's the creation and processing of that data that really lie at the heart of the business need here, says Warren Wilson, an analyst at Summit Strategies.

"[Wi-Fi] may be the cheapest way to link all the information from RFID systems to the back-end system, but there is no real magic to that," he said. "The transport of that data back into your system really is almost secondary. I don't hear people raising a concern that that part is so difficult that it will need some special attention."

As a business proposition, National Scientific overcomes this hurdle to some extent through its diversity of products. The Wi-Fi tracker is just one component in a suite of indoor and outdoor tracking products. The firm does in fact have a range of products to create and process location data. That being said, Clark is the first to admit that the Wi-Fi piece of the technology is not without its limitations in this context.

Clark has found himself constrained by the power demands of wireless LAN—a problem that plagues many producers of Wi-Fi based products.

"Wi-Fi devices are typically very power hungry. If you have your notebook computer and your Wi-Fi card, you will burn down your computer's power in about an hour," he said. "But if I want to use a [tracking] tag, I need that battery to last the same perceived length as a cell phone."

To get around the problem, Clark is creating devices that power up on an as-needed basis, for instance by using motion sensors on tags that will be attached to x-ray carts. Still, he has to be ever awake to the power issue as his engineers bring new products to market.

Finally, ironically, Clark says he is plagued by the challenge of customers already wanting more before he has even begun to get rolling.

Too often, he says, National Scientific will roll out a fabulous new application, only to find out that potential clients want it customized, perhaps with communications functions or other features that go beyond the original conception.

"You start to connect the dots for some of these early adopters, and immediately they want the moon," he said.

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