It may seem strange now, but there was a time when WiFi was merely considered as a quirky alternative to wired internet connections. Yet the convenience - the new found freedom of surfing the net without wires - was enough to quickly cement WiFi's status as an essential part of everyday life.
With the explosion of the so-called 'Internet of Things', WiFi is driving another massive shift in our perception of how we interact with the physical world. As we connect more objects - anything from our watches to our home thermostats - to the internet, our relationship with the physical world around us is informed by the possibilities of the online world.
One particular set of possibilities is offered by the evolution of WiFi-based location services. In the past, location services relied on triangulation between different WiFi access-points. The result was broad mapping of movement, which while providing very interesting analytics data, could not deliver granular accuracy, particularly in tight spaces.
New options such as Virtual Bluetooth Low Energy (vBLE) beacons allow for super-accurate location services which can be delivered with ease and minimal infrastructure cost. By allowing organisations to set up virtual beacons, it is increasingly possible to use location based services to improve customer experience and ultimately, create a finely personalised service.
Location, location, location
There are numerous applications, and over the next few years we will be seeing these location based services embedded into businesses across a range of sectors. You might struggle to imagine why you would ever need a virtual BLE beacon to tell you where you are; but have you ever been lost in a labyrinthine building, like a hospital or Ikea store? Most of us have abandoned our Ordinance Survey orientation skills in favour of following Google maps' blue location dot. But this kind of GPS tracking simply cannot help you navigate a contained space like a building.
The promise of ultra-accurate location technology is that you will be able to use your phone like a GPS navigator to find your way. vBLE beacons can be placed anywhere in a building with the click of a button, reducing the infrastructure cost of installing traditional physical access points. A building administrator can drag and drop the virtual beacons in any configuration to maximise the effectiveness of their location services - such as placing a higher number of beacons at particularly confusing junctions inside the building.
The physical world online
The technology also has the potential to improve the experience of being in a large store, which can often involve walking miles before finding another living soul. In a large 'big box' store for example, shop assistants can use vBLE beacons to understand where customers are in the store, enabling them to identify and come to the help of any who require it. Also, if you wish for more information on a product you've been looking at for a while, the beacons can pinpoint which product you are looking at and offer you specifications or offers via your mobile.
This goes beyond retail, too. Imagine visiting an exhibit in a museum; the crowds means you're unable to get close enough to read the information panels, but your phone prompts you that it has the information for the particular artefact ready at the touch of a button.
The vast amount of data which our connected devices create means that WiFi provisioning is becoming more challenging. However, we are now seeing technologies such as machine learning come into enterprise wireless. Access points can adapt themselves to the types of devices that are being connected, learn usage patterns, and intelligently redirect devices to other nearby access points to provide stable and secure services which can be relied upon during times of heavy load.
These developments in wireless technologies will improve the quality of behind the scenes big data projects too. For example, World Wide Technology recently completed a project at a large international airport which aimed to understand pedestrian traffic flows throughout the facility. Collecting this kind of anonymised information means that layouts can be improved in response to flows of people, ultimately improving efficiency and journey times. With more accurate location services, and more reliable WiFi networks, the quality of our big data insights will be vastly improved for better applications such as this.
Making it work
We will all see the benefits of the new wave of innovation in Enterprise WiFi. However, individuals may well be concerned about issues such as privacy and security. We have seen a range of cybersecurity breaches over the last 12 months, with each one having the effect of shaking consumer confidence in the brands that handle their data.
If businesses can show they are aware of this fact and that they can be trusted custodians of data, customers stand to benefit from a world of new possibilities as innovations in WiFi begin to arrive.
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