Zolk C: Using Mobile Pervasive Services to Enhance User Experience

Zolk C is a company that provides interpretative guides by means of handheld devices for exhibitions, museums and tour sites. It can be used wherever there is a need to enhance a visitor’s experience to a given venue. Zolk C was spun out from the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) in 2008 and through an ongoing innovation partnership the TSSG is driving the Zolk C technology.

John McGovern is a researcher in the area of mobile pervasive services and is Head of Technical Projects at Zolk C.

Pervasive services allow services to be seamlessly available anywhere at anytime and in any format. Pervasive is defined or utilized under a number of themes:

  • Location
  • Context: Which can be defined in three ways:
    • Where the user is
    • Who the user is with
    • What resources are available to the user
  • Sensors
  • Self-learning: Context definition and context interaction based on the ability to self-learn.

Up until recently if you went to a museum or a tourist site you could be provided with some sort of device that could only give you some audio to help guide you around the location. What a user would expect from an interpretative tour running on a mobile pervasive service would be far richer and far more extensive than just simple audio.

The National Trust for Scotland wanted revamp the visitor experience to one of their major sites of national importance, the place where the Battle of Culloden took place. They wanted to mark out locations on the battlefield that were of special interest. However for reasons of sensitivity and aesthetics they didn’t want to clutter up the site with placards and signs.

Here is a video of the technological solution to this brief that Zolk C were able to provide:

John explains further, “Context is one of the key drivers behind pervasive services. Every action and interaction that the user has on the device and with the device is monitored and logged and is being fed into the engine. So we can use this to profile and model what users are doing and what users aren’t doing.

“In that engine as well we have built a positioning algorithm that allows us to fine grain positioning indoors. We are able to take multiple sensors and augment the location information that we are able to get from that and provide a more accurate pinpoint of where you are.

“What we are then able to do for Zolk C is enable them to layer the content and rich media http://and%20image%20files%20for%20example on top of that positional information. They can then provide a bespoke interface for their client which coupled with our location engine is a really powerful tool.

“From that we can predict things. If a user has gone through a museum and has spent the morning looking at the armoury section and as a consequence missed something else in the exhibit we can raise an alert and say something like, “Did you know there was another armoury section behind door B?” for instance. We are able to tailor the experience to individuals. This is real data in real-time that would be relevant to the tour provider.”

A WiFi framework has been added which gives us the benefit of real-time communications. Previously to upgrade a device it would need to be plugged into a PC and synced. Using WiFi all the devices can be upgraded simultaneously in about twenty minutes if they are all switched on and working.

The ability to communicate leads to the possibility of networks forming and from networks communities can form. John explains, “A big thing that is coming down the road is the ability for tour operators or exhibitors to add communities and by allowing users to think they are part of a community it really increases the traction to the website.

“If you were at Culloden say, and you took pictures of your family you would be able to load them into the Culloden community site and then you can share those pictures with other communities that you may be part of such as friends or co-workers. We have been able to allow them to do that quite easily.

“We can do device to device communications and device to server communications as well. For example, if you were to spot a deer on the lawn on your tour you could broadcast out to other devices, “Come look, there’s a deer on the lawn.”

Mobile pervasive services making use of information derived from context – who the user is, who the user is with and what resources are available to the user – will become a tradable commodity for service providers going forward.

As John points out, “To be able to take the relevant data in terms of context, provided targeted advertising based on that content directly to the users will definitely be worth a lot of money.”

LocalSocial: The Difference Between Proximity and Location

Sean O’Sullivan is the Co-Founder and CEO of Rococo. The original vision of the company was to make it easier for developers to stitch proximity function into their apps. Sean and his colleagues noticed that the Application Programming Interface (API) of every Bluetooth stack (the way protocols that communicate with each other are sometimes organised for convenience) was completely proprietary. They figured that they could create value by creating a common and consistent API using the Java language.

As well as helping the work on the technical standard — JSR-82 — for connecting Bluetooth with Java, Rococo provided a set of tools that enabled developers to develop apps that would enable them to take greater advantage of Bluetooth. In addition they licensed their own implementation of that standard to the mobile phone handset manufacturers.

As of June 2010 Rococo’s technology was deployed on over a 180 million handsets worldwide.

However, the advent of smartphones has produced new challenges. For the most part they do not use the JSR-82 standard. In response to these changes in the mobile landscape Rococo have developed a product using their own proximity platform called LocalSocial.

How did the changes in the market lead to the deveopment of LocalSocial?

“It led us to broaden our field of view to offer a proximity platform that could work with Bluetooth, NFC, WiFi and other short-range wireless technologies. “

“We’re dealing with proximity. We are all about making it easy to detect if you are near a person, a business or a device of interest. Near, in our world means anything from two feet to thirty or forty feet.

“Location is a well-served part of the market at the moment. Engineering on mobile handsets is incredibly well-serviced. The core functionality of figuring out where you are is done by a combination of GPS, cell ID and reverse WiFi lookup.

“Our technology is independent of whether you are inside or outside of cellular or GPS coverage. We are also neutral to wireless technology. This means we can stitch in support for new and more exotic short range wireless technologies as and when they get jammed into cell-phones

“Because we are interested interested in proximity we use any short range wireless technology that does “proximity” well. Bluetooth is excellent because it is installed in all smartphone and more than half of all the rest of the world’s mobile phones.”

What is the difference between Local Social and Foursquare?

“Foursquare is really two things — an app and a platform. We are really much more a platform. We don’t necessarily have a bell weather app as yet that shows off the platform.

“One things that we do have in common with Foursquare is that we also believe that we can monetize the interactions between businesses and people as part of what the platform can do.

“What’s different is that we start off by saying, “Here’s LocalSocial, it’s a platform.” Third party developers can register, build apps that use the platform and stitch proximity functionality into their apps much easier then they could do otherwise. We are actually promoting the platform to developers.”

Why would anybody want a proximity device? What would be the use of it?

“For handset manufacturers smartphones have been taken a lot of the action over the last couple of years but social networking technology has also been driving a lot of innovation on those platforms.

“Mobile apps have been a huge driver in user activity and user acquisition for the social network sites. In one of our demos we show what happens when you have Linkedin working with proximity.

“One of the things you can do is share your information (you control the amount) with people that are nearby. Conversely you can browse the Linkedin information of those same people.

“This can mean you can search for someone in the room who is interested in social media or interested in Bluetooth or whatever.

“The core that makes LocalSocial tick is that with your permission we store information about your Bluetooth MAC address – your unique Bluetooth address contained in the chip on your phone – online. We let you associate other information with that and decide how that might be shared with people that are physically near to you.

“We have profiles that contain versions of you social network settings. For example if you are in what you might call work mode you only share your linkedin information. If you are in say, party mode, you can share your Last.fm information for example.

“Person to business is the area that we have had the most interest to date. There seems to be some good evidence of demand for these sort of interactions.”