Every global crisis brings this same conundrum: While times of upheaval cause severe economic pain, they also tend to be fertile breeding grounds for innovation.

The Great Recession produced a wave of startups that are among today’s top digital brands, such as Airbnb, Dropbox, Square, and Uber. Apple reinvented itself with the launch of the iPod six weeks after 9/11. FedEx was founded during the 1973 oil crisis, Disney and HP during the Great Depression.

During COVID-19, we’ve seen Slack, Zoom, and Instacart become ubiquitous tools uniquely suited to the moment. But other technologies are seeing increased adoption too and are poised to continue making a mark long after the pandemic has subsided.

One is Bluetooth-powered indoor location services — which track the locations of people or things as they move around indoors, where GPS systems can’t penetrate. The technology has engendered a variety of corporate and industrial applications in recent years but now is drawing intense interest as a tool to build workplace safety and well-being in a post-COVID-19 world.

Bluetooth chips, whether in a cell phone or embedded in a work identification badge holder, can work with the smart building technology already present in a growing number of offices and factories to record an employee’s or visitor’s movements and identify anyone who may have interacted with someone who has tested positive for the virus.

Contact tracing isn’t the only way the technology can help companies aiming to return to normal, however.

Contactless doors automatically open upon recognizing a person approaching, reducing the risk of the virus surviving on door handles. Real-time asset tracking allows companies to track down and sanitize equipment handled by a person now known to be sick. To enforce social distancing, indoor location services can detect if too many people are lingering close together in one spot.

Indoor location services, as I said, aren’t new. The technology already had been gaining steam in retail, hospitality, transportation, healthcare, education, and other environments for an array of applications.

But the fresh interest that COVID-19 is fueling marks a crossing-the-chasm moment. For many organizations, pandemic-related use cases are proving a good reason to invest in the infrastructure for broader purposes. Once the tracking infrastructure is in place, adding other use cases becomes easy. For example, there are now 86 documented use cases in healthcare alone.

It reminds me of the development arc of small, portable robots, which were used for the first time in disaster response after 9/11. The technology had already come a long way by then, but its work at Ground Zero accelerated activity in the space and small robots are now used in several industries.

For the same reasons that GPS unlocked the potential of outdoor location and enabled Uber, Grubhub, real-time mapping, and so many of the other apps we rely on today, indoor location is primed to become a $400 billion-plus market. Think about it: We spend the vast majority of our time indoors, so the possibilities for location-aware indoor applications are almost endless.

Most people think of Bluetooth as the pairing technology for their headphones, smart speakers, or car infotainment systems, but indoor location works with its cousin, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). BLE acts as a language of sorts, constantly sending out signals that other Bluetooth-enabled devices can see.

Modern indoor location services took a major leap forward with Apple’s introduction of the BLE iBeacon protocol in 2013 and Google’s introduction two years later of the Eddystone beacon platform. This put location technology in all our pockets through our mobile devices, enabling them to communicate with small, wireless, location-aware beacons, which are able to pinpoint the device’s physical location and trigger an action.

A new BLE standard, V5.1, introduced last year includes direction-finding features that increases location accuracy enormously, down to the centimeter in open fields.

These advances are providing the foundation – the operating system, connectivity, location capabilities — to make deploying indoor location services as easy as their outdoor counterpart has become.

After the iPhone was launched in 2007, you suddenly could build a mobile app without having to invest in building the hardware (a phone) or an operating system, or in connectivity (3G at the time), or in GPS (which came with the operating system). The same ease of development is now happening with indoor location.

As a result, indoor location services already are integrated throughout our lives (whether we know it or not) and have become essential pieces of the connected world.

Hospitals are using Bluetooth-enabled staff badges, patient wristbands, and bed tags to know where every patient, doctor, visitor, staff member, wheelchair, or bed is at any given time and to bring indoor location on par with outdoor GPS in helping patients, families, and visitors find their way around large medical facilities.

Manufacturers are relying on indoor location services to locate parts quickly and account for entries and exits in hazard areas.

The technology is fostering a hotel or convention center of the future where the BLE capabilities in our phones can answer questions such as how far is the room where my next meeting is or where is the closest restaurant?

Indoor location services can help a company understand how their spaces are being used – for example, smart meeting rooms that know when people are present or not and adjust the lights and heating and air conditioning accordingly.

As you can see, while COVID-19 contact tracing is driving a great deal of interest and investment in indoor location right now, the technology’s usefulness goes way beyond that particular application. I expect that we’ll look back one day at indoor location as one of those innovations that solved a unique need in a crisis and went on to achieve mainstream adoption for many other reasons.

The post Why a tough market again proves a breeding ground for innovation (Reader Forum) appeared first on RCR Wireless News.


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