Making the Case for Ambient Services (Again)

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8292958010_d91cd1ea13_zIn late 2011, Foursquare rolled out a feature called Radar that pinged and buzzed users passively as they passed places with recommendations of nearby restaurants or booked places. Like the other so-called ambient services of its time,  the product was plagued with problems, draining both user’s battery and patience.

The excitement around ambient services has faded as Highlight and others have failed to gain traction. Foursquare has more or less buried the feature, opting instead for less frequent — but arguably more valuable — recommendations when you enter arrive in a new city or enter a new neighborhood.

But the vision behind Radar and other ambient services — the idea of a contextually aware device —still offers a compelling use case. For instance, why won’t your phone – unprompted – turn off its ringer in a movie theater; or give you a reminder to get milk when you approach your local convenience store.

In many ways, the ambient services that failed in 2011 and 2013 are poised for a comeback. Within the next few years, the technology will be in place to make these long sought-after scenarios a reality.  iBeacons and low-energy Bluetooth are making precise indoor location tracking more readily available.

Here are three big hurdles services need to overcome to make ambient notifications a reality.

Privacy and Opt-in
In order to make ambient notifications valuable, a system needs to constantly monitor a user’s activity. That means that applications need to secure an opt-in from the user, and due to recent changes to iOS privacy settings, those are harder to come by.  It’s also critical that messages and alerts need to be on target and wanted, or users will turn them off.

Navigating the privacy issues is probably the greatest challenge for these services.  Unless a user really wants a particular bit of information or data waiting for you at a specific location, everything else is distracting and intrusive.  Even Facebook, which has been notorious for default settings that some see as invasive, requires opt-in for Nearby Friends to access your location history.

Location Accuracy
GPS isn’t always available, feasible, or accurate enough.  IP addresses are poor at location accuracy.   Other more accurate approaches, like Wi-Fi or mobile signal triangulation, or iBeacon, have still not proliferated.  It will take multiple technologies and strong integration to provide seamless location awareness across a variety of indoor and outdoor locations.

Battery Drain
Ambient location tracking is a battery killer, particularly through GPS, and can consume 5-15% of your battery charge per hour, depending on signal access and chosen technology.  With mobile battery drain being such a persistent problem, savvy mobile users often turn off all location-based background apps to conserve battery life.

When iBeacon readers proliferate, which will begin to happen in stores like Macy’s next year, #2 indoor location accuracy #3 battery drain will be solved.  However, it will still take clever marketing minds to solve hurdle #1, and get consumers to opt-in  at scale.

With the right privacy protections and parameters, limited battery drain, and location accuracy, a ubiquitous ambient location platform could be one of those “Geo-Unicorns” I wrote about last year in Street Fight.  If you see any suitable candidates, please give us a shout.

Jason E. KleinJason E. Klein is the founder/CEO of On Grid Ventures LLC, and investment and advisory firm focused on the startup and reinvention of businesses capitalizing on digital and location-based technologies. He is also the Chairman of Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of Greater New York.  Follow him on Twitter @JKNews.