Wi-Fi Alliance intros beacon-like tech to offer context

The Wi-Fi Alliance is creating a new certification program called Wi-Fi Aware that seeks to provide information about where a device is in relation to other devices and to share contextual information with the user without sucking down a lot of juice. For example in a stadium it might be used to tell a person that there’s a shorter line for concessions just ten feet a way or in an airport it might share gate information or let you know one of your colleagues is also nearby in the terminal.

If this sounds like beacon technology offered by Bluetooth Low Energy you would be right. Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO of Wi-Fi Alliance, did not compare it directly to beacons, but did explain that Wi-Fi Aware was designed to offer “neighbor awareness” between devices. He then shared the stadium line example and pointed out that many places already have deployed Wi-Fi with the implication that they have not already deployed Bluetooth beacons.

Basically, as the internet of things gains ground, Wi-Fi needs to add new capabilities. Connecting all these things without burdening the end user with dozens of notifications or requiring college-level programming skills just to program a new rule for home automation will require contextual awareness of both where people are related to devices and where devices are related to each other. Wi-Fi Aware is an answer to that problem.

Of course, for this to be a success there are two big issues that The Alliance will have to conquer, building it into devices and applications and making sure it really doesn’t consume a lot of power. To reduce power consumption Figueroa says the technology sends the Wi-Fi Aware signals out in a cluster — it’s not always broadcasting. This requires some pretty intense timing and synchronization he didn’t get into, but he did promise to send me a paper on the technology that I’m still waiting on.

As for the second problem, it’s worth mentioning, because while Wi-Fi is widespread, the Alliances’ Wi-Direct certification that allows devices to directly share information such as sharing a picture taken on a camera directly with another user without emailing it, isn’t something I encounter very often. Figueroa says that in the coming year we should see more of it as the Alliance gets more manufacturers and app developers on board.

As for Wi-Fi Aware, this isn’t something that’s going to be out anytime soon. The Alliance is announcing that it wants to create the certification program at International CES, but it won’t actually begin that process until the middle of this year. So we’re not going to see any Wi-Fi Aware certifications and actual devices until the end of this year — likely not until 2016 if we’re being realistic. In the meantime, Beacons and BLE will proliferate.