Just how smart can a smartphone get?

Tracking customers in shopping precincts is retail’s new frontier. Photo: Thinkstock

Tracking customers in shopping precincts is retail’s new frontier. Photo: Thinkstock

In summary: 
  • A UTS researcher is working with global technology company Yahoo to develop a location-based algorithm for mobile devices. Potential applications include retail, security and payments systems.
  • Rapid developments in smartphone technology bring benefits for business and customer, but also challenges, especially in the area of ethics and privacy.

No sooner have we got our heads around the rather spooky phenomenon of targeted ads appearing during internet browsing (how did Facebook know I wanted an electric bike?), than smartphones are set to take the conversation a step further.

“Look!” your phone might soon be saying. “There’s your favourite cafe. Why not pop in for a coffee and a muffin? It’s half price if you show this ad.”

A collaboration between Australian robotics researcher Jaime Valls Miro and the global technology giant Yahoo is developing a location-based algorithm for mobile devices that would make your smartphone “aware” of its surroundings.

“Say, you’re a tennis fan in front of a particular sports store and Yahoo knows (from your internet clicks) that you love tennis,” says Associate Professor Valls Miro, from the Centre for Autonomous Systems at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).

“As you pass the store you might find a special offer on tennis gear at that very store ‘pushed’ to your mobile device from Yahoo.”

Researcher Mitesh Patel, from Yahoo Labs in California, says so-called “contextual awareness” presents opportunities for business owners through the quantitative and qualitative information that can be gleaned – “for example, the amount of foot traffic and where in the store customers spend most of their time” – and even a better customer experience.

Contextual awareness in shopping centres and city landscapes is key to providing highly personalised services and will be generated by sensors in the mobile device and Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacon infrastructure.

BLE is a communication technique based on traditional Bluetooth but with very low energy requirements. “You can put a beacon somewhere and it will keep going for two to three years,” Dr Valls Miro says. “The beacons, which constantly emit unique location-related information, are also small, cheap, easy to install and infrastructure independent.”

This emerging technology hasn’t quite reached Australia but Dr Patel says it is increasingly used in the United States. “BLE is already used in smart devices like smartphones, smartwatches and fitness devices and there is the potential for its widespread adoption in applications like payment systems, micro location, security and proximity. Many companies, including PayPal, Estimote and StickNFind are working towards developing solutions for applications that use BLE technology.”

The research aims to build on accurate calibration of the beacons’ signals using methods borrowed from mobile robotics. This is where Dr Valls Miro comes in, says Dr Patel, because he and his team are developing novel localisation solutions by using information about the environment obtained from various sensors.

Challenges they face include the high sensitivity of a beacon’s signal to the “noise” of the environment and there will, no doubt, be some tricky ethical questions to work through as this technology develops.

These ethical questions are of great interest to Michael Fraser, director of the Communications Law Centre at UTS. He can see the benefits but thinks laws to protect people and their privacy have not kept up with the rapid development of these powerful technologies and this should be addressed.

“I think it raises questions for all of us, as to how much privacy we’re willing to give up in exchange for these services and for targeted advertising – particularly in Australia where many people might be surprised to learn that we don’t, at this time, have a legal right to privacy,” Professor Fraser says.

He believes we need to think about these questions early in the design phase and build in the capacity for consent and proper regulation before, rather than trying to catch up later.

“There’s a tremendous new-age oil rush on – worth over $100 billion internationally – which is the buying and selling of our private information to sustain what appear to be free services, but which are really sustained by targeted advertising based on our private information.

“My concern with the development of ‘contextual awareness’ is that this new technology will extend further into the physical world by giving companies and governments the ability to keep us under surveillance at all times and cleverly manipulate our behaviour.”

With such large sums of money at stake, the march of technology will almost certainly progress as swiftly as ever, and whether the law can catch up or not, one thing is almost certain: BLE will be coming to a shopping centre near you soon.