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Ultrasound Whispers Beat Out GPS

By Sun Sachs | 3 years ago on November 4th, 2010 | Comments | Permalink

A Palo Alto start-up called ShopKick recently launched a new iPhone app that rewards consumers with points and discounts when they visit store outlets like Best Buy and Macy’s.  Unlike many of the other location based apps like FourSquare and Gowalla, ShopKick doesn’t rely on the GPS built into the user’s phone to determine their location.   The current issue with GPS for applications like this is that it doesn’t provide the level of accuracy needed to determine the precise location of the device which is why we have a look-up list with a number of possible locations every time we try to check-in to apps like Foursquare.  Another challenge is GPS tends to fail indoors where connectivity is not always consistent.    

By contrast, ShopKick uses a very clever technology that consists of small sensors attached to the ceiling of the store that generate ultrasound beacons, not heard by human ears, but picked up by the cell phone’s microphone.  Multiple sensors placed throughout the store also enable the accurate triangulation of a person’s location and deliver a level of accuracy not currently possible with GPS. WiFi access points, RFID or Bluetooth.  

As clever as ShopKick’s technology solution is it is still essentially a very elegant work around to overcome the current limitations of GPS and the Apple imposed limits on the iPhone.  One could argue that eventually GPS and connectivity issues will be fixed and we’ll be able to use standard technology to achieve the same thing.  Perhaps NFC will change things as well.  But why is this concept so significant?  These days most folks are applying old thinking to new technologies which only pushes innovation forward by a few percentage points.

Remember the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise is walking through a store and is immediately recognized by a poster on the wall which then audits his buying history in milliseconds making him a relevant offer for new clothing as he passes by?

Or Vernor Vinge’s book “A Deepness in the Sky” where he introduced the concept of localizers which were little devices that contain simple sensors capable of harvesting their own energy and working together to form a mesh network to do cool things like analyze someone’s state of being, lift giant space rocks and such?

What I’m getting at is that while Shopkick’s app has a novel approach to building local-based loyalty programs with some cool technology this is just the start of it.   The true power comes when we combine GPS capabilities with a local mesh network.  One day all the objects in our world will be self-aware and capable of interfacing with our phones, our clothes and who knows what else :-)

Filed under: local sensing GPS wearable mobile iPhone apps sen sensor

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