Context Aware Computing (Archived Report)

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Context Aware Computing

by Geoff Keston

Docid: 00021022

Publication Date: 1602

Report Type: TUTORIAL


In a wide variety
of IT products and across many industries, technology is growing more
“context aware.” The ability to identify conditions such as location
and the surrounding temperature is changing how vendors design products
and how users employ them. Understanding these changes is crucial for
staying competitive in a variety of industries, but the effects of the
technology’s emergence are just beginning to be understood.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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Today, many devices operate in
different ways depending on factors
such as where the user is located. This technology, in all of its many
varied forms, is called “context-awareness.”

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most familiar applications of the technology consider location, such as
when Google search results give users local information first. But
there are many other factors that context can consider, from the type
of device being used to how quickly a person is moving.

technology used to make this work involves software, hardware, and
network connections operating in conjunction. Because of the variety of
technologies needed, a wide range of vendors and service providers are
involved in the market. Some of these companies have simply integrated
context awareness into their existing products, such as smartphone
manufacturers who have added sensors to their devices. But other
companies specialize in the technology. The
market is expected to grow quickly for the next few years, driven in
part by the development of Big Data, cloud computing, and mobile

To date, many applications of context awareness have been for simple,
consumer-oriented purposes, such as navigation. But the concept is also
being explored for critical business functions, most notably security.
The broadening applications of context awareness are pressuring affected companies to update their marketing and product design processes. For
example, digital advertising practices are changing as a result of the
availability of contextual information, and manufacturers in many
industries are figuring out how to take contextual data into account
when predicting the ways in which customers will use their products.


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term “context aware” refers to any technology that automatically
identifies the conditions in which it is being used and changes its
behavior accordingly. A context can be defined by considering any of
the following:

  • Connection type
  • Device type
  • Local environmental
  • Location
  • Movement
  • The users who
    are in the vicinity
  • The
    resources that are in the vicinity 
  • Time of day

An analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers identified four recently
emerged technologies that have led to the rise of context
aware computing: Big Data, cloud computing, sensors that collect
contextual information, and mobile computing devices.1 “These
components work in unison to continuously acquire, model, reason, and
notify subscribed users,” says the report. “This constant interaction
keeps personal information and situational awareness current.”

A truly context aware technology works with little or no direct
involvement from users. Functions change automatically — “seamless” is
a word often used to describe it. But for the technology to work, a great deal of
coordination between hardware, operating systems, applications, and
networked data must take place. For a technology to be
aware of context, specialized sensors are typically required. Often, each factor
of which a technology is aware must have its own sensor; for example, a
sensor that detects location may not detect temperature. Sensors and
software must work together, so each must be designed with the other in
mind. The development of hardware is therefore as important as the
development of software for particular context aware functions to work.

Many of the applications of context awareness are for mobile devices, as
are likely to be used in changing circumstances. Many smartphone apps
are context aware, for example, and car navigation systems are another
popular use of
the concept. But there are also uses in stationary devices. For
example, in so-called “smart buildings,” lighting may
change in intensity based on the amount of sunlight coming into a room. And as technology advances, new types of contextual awareness are
likely to emerge.

Current View

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Today, the market for context aware technology is large and diverse.
There are several likely reasons for this:

  • Many types of technology are needed to make context
    awareness work, from hardware to software to networking.
  • Context
    awareness is not necessarily a specialty technology. Instead, vendors
    of anything from operating systems to mobile devices to cloud services
    need to think about the role of context.
  • The technology is
    still developing and holds the potential for innovation and for
    specialization, making room in the market for many companies,
    including small boutique companies

addition to the applications mentioned above, such as in mobile phones
navigation, another area in
which context awareness is being heavily explored is in security. In
these applications, context may affect whether a user is authenticated.
example, a user may be able to access a networked resource with a
smartphone while in a company’s building but not while offsite. This
allows for security configurations that strike a better, more flexible
balance between protection and user convenience. Also, security
applications demonstrate a use of context awareness for critical
business purposes. (Many familiar applications of context
are consumer-oriented, such as search results that
consider location when a user does a Web search for “restaurants” or
“shopping malls.”)

there is strong interest in using context in the design of security
systems, but the idea has not been widely put into practice. “While
nearly 100 percent of IT professionals surveyed recognize the benefits
a context-aware security approach would bring, only 28 percent said
their organizations have fully embraced this approach,” writes Mark
Pomerleau, describing research performed by Dell.2
than 60
percent indicated that lack of awareness about context-aware security
is the greatest barrier to adopting it in their organization.” Other
factors that are impeding the adoption of context awareness include
cost and the lack of availability of relevant technology.3

addition to providing a new security tool, context awareness also
presents some security and privacy concerns. The data that the
technology provides about people, such as where they are or who they
are with, could be used to steal information from
them or launch various types of attacks. Also, because the technology
is seamless, many users will not know –and therefore will not be able
to control — what information about them is being collected.


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context aware market is forecast to grow steeply. A study by
MarketsandMarkets found that it would reach about $120 billion in 2018,
up from just over $26 billion in 2013.4
A study by Juniper Research, which looked
just at the location services portion of the market, predicted similar
growth, estimating that location services would be worth over $43
billion a year by 2019, compared with $12.2 in 2014.5
The Juniper study noted that more than two-thirds of the market will be
attributable to “highly targeted and contextually
aware ad-supported apps.”

awareness is becoming a common aspect of the designs of a variety of
technologies in a broad range of industries. Instead of growing into a
specialty technology, it is likely to become a seamlessly integrated
part of consumer and business
tools. For example, describing how TD Bank envisions using context
awareness in its mobile app, the bank’s chief digital officer, Rizwan
Khalfan, describes the following scenario:


I’m going to watch a baseball game with my family…. As I approach the
ballpark, I get a notification from the TD Bank app with information
about the game, stats, directions that guide me to my seat, and then,
as we watch the game, I order food and drink and it’s paid for right
through the app. We want to walk the boundary between traditional
banking interactions and customers just living their lives.6

phrase “customers just living their lives” is characteristic of how
context awareness is likely to develop over the next few years,
becoming more pervasive and sophisticated without ordinary users being
cognizant of the trend.


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Revise Your Design Philosophy

Organizations that develop technology products that use — or that could use —
context awareness must update their design philosophy. “In
Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), we traditionally aim to understand
the user and the context of use and create designs that support the
major anticipated use cases and situations of use,” writes computer
scientist Albrecht
Schmidt. “In
Context-Aware Computing on the other hand, making use of context causes
a fundamental change: We can support more than one context of use that
are equally optimal.”7

To design with context in mind,
developers need to study users. “This process starts with mapping out
the current experience,” says Jared M. Spool.8
“If we watched people
traveling to board the train, we can discover what they need and when
they need it. We can see where the context breakpoints occur, where
information needs to shift in the application.” However, Spool
says, context-aware designing is still immature. It is in a
trial-and-error stage, so the design community will likely learn a
great deal about the process in the coming years.

factor that makes designing for context awareness difficult is that the
goal is to meet the needs and desires of people, not simply to respond
to objective data like location. Describing this difficulty, Schmidt
says the following:

user’s perception of the surroundings is based on human senses, but
relates at the same time to experience and memory. Human perception is
multifaceted. When walking home from the bus stop late in the evening,
a user may perceive that it is dark, quiet, and cold, but at the same
time he may perceive the situation as scary. Another user, who was busy
the whole day and surrounded by people, may perceive the situation also
as dark, quiet, and cold, but at the same time as relaxing and free.
This example shows that relying on sensor data alone does not provide
the complete picture. It is important to remember that even a perfect
design and implementation will not be able to perceive the environment
in exactly the same way as the user does.9

Revise Your Marketing Philosophy

that use mobile and Web-based marketing would be wise to consider the
effects that context awareness has had. For example, a retailer’s
digital advertising campaign that did not take advantage of
location-based information would be less targeted and likely
less effective than the campaigns being run by its competitors.

changes to marketing philosophy are not purely technological. Rather
than simply mastering a new tool or new medium, marketers must
fundamentally think differently about how to understand and reach their
customers. To identify ways to rethink a marketing philosophy, an organization can
research how context awareness is being used within its industry.
Identifying approaches used in other industries is also helpful because
many applications are becoming broadly popular and consumers are coming
to expect certain capabilities and levels of convenience to be built
into the apps they use.

One way that organizations might adjust their marketing is described by Aurelie
Guerrieri, of mobile ad company Cheetah MediaLink:

In the past, grocery stores and pharmacies made up for thin profit margins
by selling distributors – let’s say Coca-Cola – ad space in the store’s
weekly circular. But the era of printed store materials is passing and
retailers are struggling even to get people into their spaces,
delivering another big hit to their profit margins.

Now let’s reimagine this scenario with in-store mobile technology – such as
beacon technology – that can tell store owners who is in what aisle,
what they looked at, what they purchased and what they didn’t. (They
are still anonymous to the company and identified with a mobile ID).
The grocery store could sell Coca-Cola the chance to deliver the
consumer a Coke ad on their smartphone just as they enter the soda

This example demonstrates how disruptive context aware can be to an
organization’s marketing approach, showing how it can both render some
old techniques ineffective and create new opportunities for
reaching customers.


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About the Author

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is the author
of more than 250 articles that help organizations find opportunities in
business trends and technology. He also works directly with clients to
develop communications strategies that improve processes and customer
relationships. Mr. Keston has worked as a project manager for a major
technology consulting and services company and is a Microsoft Certified
Systems Engineer and a Certified Novell Administrator.

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