Is contextual computing the love child of big data, mobility and IoT?

The more businesses combine mobility, big data and the Internet of Things, the closer they'll come to contextual computing: The Data Mill reports.

You've seen it with the rollout of Google Glass, the fanfare over wearable tech and at the movies (Her). Call it contextual computing or ubiquitous computing or the e-life, as we're wont to do. It's what happens when the digital and physical are so entwined, it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

The Data MillAnd it's happening right now, as businesses start to combine mobile computing with big data analytics and the Internet of Things, said J Schwan, CEO of Solstice Mobile, a mobile strategy and application development firm in Chicago, and a speaker at Fusion 2014 CEO-CIO Symposium in Madison, Wis.

Mobile operating systems such as iOS and Android already support the Bluetooth Low Energy protocol, which means mobile devices can interact with products like the Estimote Beacon without draining the battery dry. About the size and shape of a colored grip found on climbing gym walls, a Beacon sticks directly to an interior wall of a building. When a user enters the room, the Beacon interacts with a mobile app on a user's phone to provide "microlocation capability," Schwan said.

One obvious use case? Retail. If a customer passes the Beacon located in the snack foods aisle, retailers can send a coupon to his mobile device. And as contextual computing matures, it won't be a coupon for just any snack product. Retailers will know that this particular customer "liked" Newman's Own products on Facebook twice in the last month and purchased a bag of Newman's Own Organics Spelt Pretzels in the last 60 days, and that people who buy spelt pretzels also tend to buy sweet potato crisps, so the coupon pushed to the customer will be highly personalized.

Who's using that conference room?

"But the capability and the applications of microlocation technology extend far beyond a retail establishment," Schwan said. "Everything from factories to warehouses to schools to hospitals can cater experiences to you and start changing human workflow."

Even the doldrums of a typical office environment can be transformed by contextual computing, Schwan said. He should know because he's putting his money where his mouth is. Schwan "Beacon-enabled" Solstice Mobile's 36,000 square feet to create what he calls the smart office.

"One of the biggest pain points in our office is fighting over conference rooms," he said. Microlocation technology provides employees with an additional layer of information. In the past, they knew what conference rooms were scheduled to be open at any given time; today, because of Beacons and mobile devices, employees can also find out what conference rooms happen to be empty right now.

Another example? Because Schwan's office is a development shop, he encourages face-to-face interaction. So he's added the in-office location information of employees to the company directory. Today, an employee can do a simple search to find a co-worker's email address and current location. "Of course, the employee has the ability to turn off that presence tracking," he said. "It's a little Big Brother-y, but it works."

Value must outweigh the risk

Not surprisingly, the big contextual computing questions for CIOs aren't that different from the questions they're facing now: How can they gather, analyze and store all of that data in a manner that will make it worth the business' while? Big data analytics technologies and cloud computing can lend a helping hand, Schwan said, but for many businesses, investing or even experimenting with that kind of technology is still a goal, not a reality.

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When Schwan asked how many businesses were experimenting with big data technologies today, fewer than five attendees -- out of more than 150 -- raised their hands. And this from a group of technology and business leaders.

On top of infrastructure, CIOs will also have to figure out how to govern contextual data -- how long should that kind of data be kept, stored, used (and possibly sold). They'll have to figure out ways to make opting in as low-risk (and as "un-Big Brother-ly") as possible for the user. As Schwan put it, "The value has to outweigh the risk."

Businesses are standing on the precipice of contextual computing, Schwan said, and an interconnected world that enables technology to act as an unseen personal assistant isn't that far off. Take the sales-enablement app he's working on right now.

"It proactively scans a salesperson's calendar, figures out who they're meeting with in advance and starts to collect information about that customer," he said. Likes, dislikes and even classic conversation starters such as local weather information and last night's local sports scores are collected and packaged into a brief that's pushed to the salesperson before the appointment takes place. And if he's driving to the meeting? That's easy. The app will read the information to him.

Welcome to The Data Mill, a weekly column devoted to all things data. Heard something newsy (or gossipy)? Email me or find me on Twitter at @TT_Nicole.

This was first published in March 2014

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