A New Connected World
The home, business and work environments of today are poised to get smarter in the coming years. Moving on to the generation witnessing the proliferation of smart objects, the focus now shifts to improving the interactions with everyday objects and thereby improving user experience. The technology advancements now focus on moving away from the smartphone tied experiences to more real-time interactions. The increasing transition of everyday objects to smart objects has sparked the growth of wearables, nearables and hearables.
Together they represent the focal points of the upcoming technological advances aimed at providing an improved enriching digital experience. Wearables refer to miniature electronic devices that are worn over or under clothes. Examples include health based applications such as Fitbit1 trackers that keep track of distance walked, calories burnt, etc., and Google Glass, smart eye-wear that augments the viewers' perspective with superimposition of relevant information and interaction through voice and gestures. Nearables refers to those everyday objects made smarter through being equipped with an array of sensors, including accelerometers, temperature, humidity and light sensors, and transmitters capable of broadcasting digital data that enable real-time contextual interactions. The hearables target health related applications such as measurement of heart rate and other blood flow parameters in addition to providing audio based information services.
Together the three technologies represent a step forward towards the dream of achieving a global interconnected network and away from a smartphone dependent world. All the three technologies currently have limitations. Wearables have accuracy issues and do not provide seamless integration that would attract a larger user base group. Battery problems are present in all three cases and with hearables the wide range of the human voice demands improved speech and voice recognition methodologies. Wearables and hearables are designed for rather narrow application domains. Here we focus on nearables, the ubiquitous solution moving towards a connected world.
Nearable technology facilitates seamless interaction with nearby connected objects. These objects have attached sensors that work as a transmitter and broadcast contextual data including location, sensor readings and time. Nearable technology aims to use existing infrastructure and with each additional smart object build a global network of interconnected objects. They are not cumbersome to the end user since the nearables do not alter the objects they represent, they are extremely lightweight and low cost and relatively easy to install given that infrastructure changes are not required but rather simply placement of beacons on walls or the required objects. The concept of nearables has been tapped and commercialized by the now hugely popular Estimote2 Inc. which recently received Series A round of funding for $10m.3 The term nearables was introduced by Estimote in their marketing campaign of Bluetooth stickers acting as beacons. Other companies in the beaconing field include BluCats, BluSense, Bluvision, and Gimbal by Qualcomm. Another faction of the research world refers to nearables as a more appealing terminology than the Internet of Things (IoT) or Internet of Everything (IoE). The Bluetooth Smart4 Technology targeting the low power, small size devices segment has been the widely adopted protocol for nearables. iBeacon protocol introduced by Apple Inc. spearheaded the use of Bluetooth based beacons for smart objects.
How it works
Bluetooth enabled beacons consist of a CPU with a small RAM footprint. They have an advertising range of 230 feet (70 meters) or in the case of stickers a range of 45 feet (15 meters). Let us consider beacons given that stickers follow the same logic as beacons, but have a smaller battery and thereby smaller range and advertising frequency. The beacons are attached to an object, for example a shoe in a shoe store. The beacon broadcasts a universally unique identifier which is received on a compatible application or operating system usually on a smartphone/smart watch. Based on the received identifier the physical location of the object (shoe) can be determined or a location based trigger can be activated. For example, when a customer walks past the shoe, the offer on the shoe can be notified to the customer. They are compatible with iOS7 and high-end Android devices i.e. devices supporting the Bluetooth 4.0 protocol.
In a similar fashion the beacons are used for indoor positioning. Various beacons are placed across the area to be mapped. An initial configuration step is required to map the locations of the beacons. When a person walks in the mapped area, based on the signals received from the beacons, proximity information is extracted. A trilateration/triangulation based methodology of the proximity information is used to pin-point the location of the person. Estimote projects the real-time visual output of the movement of the person onto the mapped bacon area. One challenge is the loss of accuracy due to interference. Factors that can affect the propagation of the signals include multipath, wave diffraction, absorption or interference. Yet beacon positioning systems are now being considered as alternate indoor positioning systems with many companies providing positioning solutions.
The target domain of the nearables ecosystem, as in the case of Estimote beacons, was initially the retail sector but now encompasses home automation and other contextual location based applications. The Estimote beacons and stickers, with their ingenious hardware design, have resulted in the creation of many meaningful applications. They have been used to improve the shopping experience of customers. Retailers can receive real-time feedback from customers thereby helping them tailor their products to meet customer expectations. Nearables pave the way to building smarter solutions to old problems e.g. indoor positioning. Museums leverage beaconing technology to improve the user experience. Instead of traditional audio-guides, proximity beacons broadcast information as the visitor nears an artefact. Large shopping malls, airports, stadiums and other populated areas are also looking at nearables as a solution to address their positioning and logistic problems. The introduction of smart watches such as Pebble and Apple watch has eased the interaction mechanisms with nearables.
Challenges and the road ahead
As with all applications related to IoT, security is a big concern. The introduction of secure universally unique identifiers prevents malicious attacks. Support for Eddystone,5 the new open Bluetooth Low Energy Beacon (BLE) introduced by Google using Ephemeral Identifiers for encryption of beacons' data, prevents spoofing and piggybacking. Unsolved questions also revolve around privacy concerns, accessibility and the ever pervading issue of power in the face of shrinking sensor and module sizes. This sector is witnessing a surge in interest in the form of start-ups and large corporations vying to create the market for the next generation of digital interactions. Nearable technology is spawning business in the form of application development, platform development, stand-alone sector related solutions, etc. Standing on the shoulders of giants, each challenge is being addressed by the continued efforts of both the research and industrial sectors.
Swaytha Sasidharan is a doctoral student with the University of Trento, Italy. Her research interests include Internet of Things (IoT) and its applications, sensors and sensor networks, machine learning and aspects of cognitive computing. She has worked as a research engineer with Create-Net, Italy (2012-15) and as a Senior Software Engineer in Bosch Sensortec, India (2010-12). She has a Master’s degree in Telecommunication Engineering from the University of Trento, Italy (2009) and a Bachelors in Electronics and Communication Engineering from Anna University, India (2007). She has been a part of the IEEE student chapter in college and has publications in her research areas.
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