Crowd tracking: Finding a needle in a haystack

By Alf Helge Omre March 15, 2017

Nearables are helping to prevent the loss of valuable items, but what happens when you move out of range? Crowd tracking is an interesting possibility.

There’s still a lot needed to make it work, but a high-density crowd tracking solution taking advantage of proximity technology is within reach.

Nearables, thin Bluetooth tags which you can attach to personal items such as keyrings, laptops and handbags, can help prevent you leaving things behind. An associated app can be configured to alert you when you are more than a set distance from the tag. Cheap and simple to use, it’s a solution that could in time see massive market demand.

> Read more: Introducing nearables: Personal portable beacons

But what happens when you move out of Bluetooth low energy range? Although the expected range of the upcoming Bluetooth 5 should be extended, there is still going to be a hard limit.

The power of the crowd

A cloud-based crowd network could be a novel solution. In such a case, each user of the network shares their position with the cloud, but not with each other. If you lose a tagged item, you can send out an alert to the cloud, and if someone else is within range of the item, you can be notified of its position.

This could potentially result in cheaper insurance on expensive products like bicycles or laptops. If a bike is stolen or simply lost, a Bluetooth-powered tag combined with a crowd network will increase the chances of it being found.

Potential applications also extend beyond objects to people themselves. Although privacy issues would have to be addressed, dementia patients or children in a kindergarten could be tagged and the managers notified if they wander off beyond a set distance.

Reaching a critical mass

For such a system to become a reality, it would need to reach critical mass. If people using the network are unable to locate objects, then they will simply stop using it.

The app from nearable manufacturer Estimote allows users of the app to find items for other people, even if those items are not publically visible. But the number of users will be limited to those with an Esimote sticker. The coin-sized ‘bravo’ sticker from TrackR works in a similar way, and the company claims over 4.5 million devices have been shipped.

The key to mass market penetration could be to take advantage of existing technology. Apple’s iOS products come with a “Find My iPhone” solution which uses the built-in location services to pinpoint the location of your other devices on a map. You can also share your location with friends and family, and see theirs, subject to permissions.

Business model of crowd tracking

Such a system would of course need a monetization strategy. Would users pay to find an item? And if so, how would the passive user-base be incentivized to install the app?

What seems more likely is for a company with a proven business model to offer this service as an add-on. The obvious solution is to integrate a crowd network into an existing social network. Monetised by advertising, some social networks already use location services to a great extent, alerting its members to local offers and nearby friends.

With such technology already in place and location services becoming standard on all smart devices, it won’t take a big leap forward for a cloud-based crowd tracking solution to be commonplace.

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