Location-based services: Where are we going next?

Near Field Communication (NFC), rather than QR codes, is poised to transform location-based services

Maps with PinsStudents really value GPS-generated features like PC and printer availability, which guide students to unoccupied computers and printers on campus, using real-time data feeds in conjunction with GPS mapping. These location-based services are great examples of new technology making a genuine difference to day-to-day living.

Innovative universities have developed their own location-based mobile services to meet local needs. Lancaster University, a campus-based university has customized a public bus timetable data feed for its students. At another UK university, mobile users can now locate available bicycles around campus. University technologists have certainly grasped the combined potential of GPS and mobile technology, and are exploiting its versatility to innovate campus services. When I set up campusM, a mobile platform for higher education institutions, back in 2009, our very first customers had location-based features like campus maps on their mobile apps as part of the standard package.

QR codes and enhanced campus navigation

But time moves on, as does innovation, in this rapidly-moving area of technology. For a while now, universities have been asking me about QR codes. They are looking to solve a more general problem than the specifics of identifying available PCs, printers, or bicycles, useful though those services are.

Inquiries about QR codes are prompted by a recognition that today’s campuses are large sprawling affairs that can be baffling for newcomers to navigate. But we have campus maps on mobile devices now, so what’s the problem? Well, many campus buildings are large and complicated enough to present orientation difficulties in their own right, and not just to occasional visitors. The trouble is that GPS is not yet sufficiently accurate within buildings. In response to this shortcoming, a number of universities are placing QR codes next to rooms, so mobile users can access information such as floor plans.

For reasons to do with usability, QR codes haven’t really taken off, either in higher education or the wider world. On UK campuses, I see them used for marketing purposes, but they aren’t really embedded in the everyday running of the university.

Deeply integrating NFC into mobile apps

I truly believe that it is Near Field Communication (NFC), rather than QR, that is poised to transform location-based services. NFC chips are about the size of a postage stamp. They have one adhesive surface and writing data onto them is straightforward. They are cost-effective, and remarkably, they last for years without requiring any power at all. After the initial set-up work, there is very little support and maintenance work involved. They work perfectly well behind plastic, so you can cover the chip with a logo or instructional graphic, so passers-by on campus will intuit that if they touch the graphic, something will happen that is relevant to that location. You can embed them in wristbands or payment cards, for example. NFC is so easy to use for mobile device owners; as long as the phone or tablet is within range, NFC will work without any manual intervention. QR codes, on the other hand, will always require a camera. It’s the flexibility, cost and ease of use that make NFC the clear winners in the location technology space.

An inclusive solution

But while the future belongs to NFC, in the short term QR codes have a vital supporting role to play.

A joint solution of NFC and QR will make location-sensitive services as inclusive as possible. There is an enormous range of mobile devices in use on today’s campuses, and it’s important not to leave anyone behind. QR codes are a great interim solution while adoption of NFC-enabled devices builds up. Universities can write data to NFC tags, offer mobile app features to interact with that data, and place both QR codes and NFC chips next to foyers and rooms.

Having given this some thought, I was intrigued to see, in the poster sessions of HighEdWeb 2012 last month , an initiative at the University of Rhode Island They’re about to go live with a campus tour supported by QR codes and NFC. Their implementation will take the user to specified web pages, and whilst that has its value, I do think we can go much further in applying these technologies to location-based services. Just think how great it would be to choose from menus that are contextual to the device’s geolocation. As you enter a room on campus, a menu would pop up with options to check room availability, for example, book the room, or view details of equipment in the room. This would enhance the relevance of the services the university offers. The mobile device would pick up a room number or some other unique reference for that location. And then back-end systems will feed information such as room bookings or floor plans.

The NFC tag might also automatically check mobile users into a room as they walk in, and update statuses on the university mobile app or social networking tools, on a permission basis. Once checked in, users could access location-sensitive information such as special offers in campus shops and friends who are already checked in there. Different types of location will generate different menu options of services and features. A user checking into a computer room might see an option to book a PC. Users who are unfamiliar with the building might like to know what’s nearby. By linking to the learning management system, students might even access learning materials for the next lecture in that room.

Having recently consulted universities about check-in, I’m aware that there is an appetite for that facility on campus. Existing check-in facilities like FourSquare lack the granularity required to locate users in a specific room within a building, so this, again, is where QR codes and NFC can make a difference.

Looking forward

The use of GPS in university mobile apps is mainstream. QR and NFC will enrich mobile experiences by delivering greater accuracy. I think most phone owners in a couple of years will have NFC and will be able to use it very easily, but in the meantime we can fall back on QR codes. NFC is already being used in airports and as proof of identity to admit individuals into certain locations. It’s not difficult to envision similar applications in higher education, but our first step is to embed NFC and QR capabilities into campusM, opening the door to more location-sensitive mobile services.

Hugh Griffiths is the CEO of oMbiel, which in only three years has risen to become the leading mobile app supplier in UK higher education. At the start of his career, Griffiths worked in technical consultancy roles for Oracle, where he honed his software skills and discovered a flair for business. He spent 16 years as Joint Managing Director of Griffiths Waite Ltd., an award-winning system integration service provider.
In 2009 he launched oMbiel and developed the campusM mobile platform. The platform is in use at more than 25 percent of UK universities, as well as institutions in Denmark and Australia.

Photo by Dave77459, flickr.


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