Context Aware Technology: A Game Changer?

Date:   Thursday , December 01, 2011

Can you dream of a day when your mobile, depending on how busy you are, decides by itself whether to let it ring or reject the caller saying you are busy or in a meeting? Or how about your computer deciding which OS the user is using and then download the software relevant to that OS? Or perhaps your computer knows that you are currently in India, and decides to show you the result in kilogramsinstead of poundwhen you search for a weighing scale? Yes, this dream may become a reality as these are some of the things which researchers in the world’s largest labs are experimenting on - a technology which knows who you are, what you are doing, and what is important in your life and what is not.

We are talking about the advances that are expected to happen in the area of context aware technology. This form of technology which is in the toddler stage as of now uses information about your environment, activities and preferences to customize and enhance your digital life. What more, Gartner expects 40 percent of the world’s smartphone users toopt for context service providers by 2015.

World’s biggest tech companies and handset companies are spending a lot of money on this next level computing which is going to redefine the scope of our digital lives.

For years, we have seen technology using Global Positioning System satellites to provide data based on a location of a person which can deliver up-to-the-minute traffic and mapping data.But this technology takes it to a new level. It can now anlayse the person's task, surroundings and habits. It can now combine analysis and memory of ‘hard sensors’ such as location awareness and ‘soft sensors’ such as user preferences. Applications built using this technology allows user interaction through speech, gesture and typing,which are designed to adapt to the network connectivity present and to other ambient conditions.

So how does this ubiquitous and wearable computing analyze? It structures Human factors related context into three categories: information on the user (knowledge of habits, emotional state, biophysiological conditions), the user’s social environment (co-location of others, social interaction, group dynamics), and the user’s tasks (spontaneous activity, engaged tasks, general goals). Likewise, context related to physical environment is structured into three categories: location (absolute position, relative position, co-location), infrastructure (surrounding resources for computation, communication, task performance), and physical conditions (noise, light, pressure).

According to Gartner, by 2012, the market for information about a person's context will rise to $12 billion. Google, Nokia, Microsoft, HP, are all honing their skills in this area to track a person’s interest through his location, activity, task, habits and buying behavior.

Enterprises are nowmoving towards context aware computing with their applications. After BYOD (Bring your Own Device) to work, enterprises are slowly venturing into context aware technology applications. This is again going to redefine the enterprise scenario and enable more collaboration and seamless connectivity. For example, if you are a regional head of a national bank and are travelling to a particular region, an application based on your location can show how many branches you have in the/that area, who the branch manager is, which branch is doing well and which isn’t, what are some of the recent activities of the branches of this location, etc. The app can even help you decide which branch to visit with priority and even set meetings for you.

From a consumer or selling perspective, the opportunity for context aware technology is huge. Recently, BNY Mellon rolled out a new mobile application for investment managers based on the context aware technology that allows the user to interact with the device in varying ways depending on the circumstances. As investment bankers travel a lot, this application will allow them to move money around wherever they are. “Lots of applications are now being built using this technology. For example, how about the app recognizing that you are currently viewing the application on a Blackberry and decides to show a smaller version of the app and when you open it later on a tablet, it realizes that the tablet has more screen area and opens it with more data and features. This technology has huge prospects”, says Raj Tumuluri, President and CEO of OpenStream, whichbuilt the platform to power apps of BNY Mellon. Tumuluri says that this technology can be really impactful in the healthcare sector by connecting the patients and the doctors in a real time manner.

Lot of companies are working on this technology to mainly build mobility applications. In future, context aware technology will enable interaction based on using voice, gesture and other natural interaction capabilities. Users will be able to simply say fix my meeting with this person and the calendar will automatically do it. The industry is also working on defining proper standards for this technology. Another big challenge is with regard to privacy.

The flip side is that in a couple of years the tech giants will be tracking the movement of atleast 10 percent of the smart phone users. Marketers and sellers can misguide the consumers because they understand the consumer behavior. This technology can integrate your social media information and decide on your preference, which means your data can be compromised. In India, telecom and cable service providers are giving options like Know what your friends are watching and locate your friends in places around you. But there are a lot of safety loopholes which need to be filled in this area before the technology assumes greater patronage.