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Thousands of Augmented Reality Beacons Installed at Gatwick Airport

Location-based technology paves the way to contextual personalized information and content for passengers

Gatwick airport just announced that it installed 2000 indoor navigation beacons to enable Augmented Reality wayfinding, the first airport in the world to do so. The lack of satellite signals makes road-based navigation systems — such as Google or Apple maps — unreliable indoors, so Gatwick has deployed a beacon based positioning system to enable reliable ‘blue dot’ on indoor maps, which in time can be used within a range of mobile airport, airline or third party apps.

The system — which is designed to make it easier for passengers to find their way around the airport and avoid missing flights — is part of a £2.5 billion transformation programme for the UK’s second largest airport, which flies around 44 million passengers per year to over 228 destinations in 74 countries contributing £5.3 billion to the nation’s GDP.

The network of battery-powered beacons was deployed in just three weeks (followed by two months of testing and calibration), and now provides a comprehensive system that is not only more reliable than GPS for indoor navigation, but also enables augmented reality wayfinding applications for passengers.

In practice this means that information can be overlaid onto a user’s mobile camera view in real-time, making it much easier to find check-in desks, departure gates, baggage belts, etc.

“We are proud to be the first airport to deploy augmented reality technology and we hope that our adoption of this facility influences other airports and transport providers so that it eventually becomes the norm,” says Gatwick’s Head of IT Commercial & Innovation Abhi Chacko.

The new navigation technology is now being integrated into some of the Gatwick apps, but the airport is also in discussion with various airlines to also feature the service on their applications.

The end-to-end “indoor blue dot” service is managed by PointrLabs, which had previously been involved in various airport projects in the US and Asia. Their CMO Axel Katalan clarifies that the tech stack comes with an indoor map which shows up to date content, positioning with +/-3m accuracy, and navigation technology that is dynamic and recognises, for example, areas currently under construction, or multi floor navigation including when taking lifts, proximity to retailers etc. Developers can easily enable those features on their own apps by using the beacon registry or PointrLabs SDK, he says:

“Our SDK enables battery-optimised, multiplatform and high performance positioning and other features such as 3D wayfinding through AR and on-screen translation, all of which are now available to be used by Gatwick and their partners as simple as drag & drop.”

All this sets the scene for the next logical application of this technology — advertising. Because although Gatwick emphasizes that it will not be collecting data beyond generic information on ‘people densities’ in various beacon zones to help improve operations and reduce congestion, it allows that airlines could go further and obtain consent from passengers to push personalized directions and reminders to individual passengers.

It is then not much of a leap at all to imagine how such tech would integrate into targeted ads. Shops would not only know where their potential customers were, but also how much time they had on their hands before a flight, and even what their shopping preferences and habits were based on things like social media profiles (just think of the data permissions you grant every time you sign onto the airport Wi-Fi with your Facebook or Twitter account). In fact, the release states that “Retailers and other third parties may also use the beacon system to detect proximity and send relevant offers or promotional messages, if the passenger has chosen to receive them.”

“By providing the infrastructure we’re opening the door for a wide range of tech savvy airport providers, including our airlines and retailers, to launch new real-time services that can help passengers find their way around the airport, avoid missing flights or receive timely offers that might save them money,” adds Chacko.

Although some of us might well be uncomfortable with the prospect of so much information being known about us (and opt-outs should be available for those that are) airports are already a place where we routinely have to subject ourselves to enhanced security and monitoring, so it feels less of a leap somehow. And the flipside of that coin is that a lot of people might well think that sharing data is a price well worth paying for a smoother experience and relevant offers sent their way. It is certainly the general trend we’re seeing as location-based, Mixed Reality, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data technologies all start to converge, and it will be interesting to see how such test cases pan out over the next months and years.

Originally published at Alice Bonasio.