Sensors, such as the Estimote Beacon, placed in the built environment can speak to indoor positioning apps in mobile devices to give users location-specific information, and building owners information about their patrons.
Estimote Sensors, such as the Estimote Beacon, placed in the built environment can speak to indoor positioning apps in mobile devices to give users location-specific information, and building owners information about their patrons.

Walk into any coffee shop and you’ll see a new type of architecture. People at tables, laptops out. People in queues, phones out. Though their bodies are in the coffee shop, they’re not really experiencing that space. Rather, they’re off meeting people in environments designed by Facebook and OkCupid, discovering new places with Foursquare, and playing in spaces designed by EA and Valve.

In less than a decade, technology from Silicon Valley has become integral to the architectural experience. The changes to the built environment have happened irrespective of architects—who are not known for being the first to adopt technology.

So, architects, here’s my heads up: Three technologies are emerging in Silicon Valley that will reshape the built environment. Here’s your chance to get ahead of the tide.

Augmented reality, or the overlaying of virtual spaces on top of physical spaces, will mean that the phenomenology of architecture will no longer depend on the built and the literally embodied. The Internet of Things will link devices together so that virtual and physical environments can more intelligently adapt to our behavior. And indoor positioning will mean that we are never lost again.

Of these technologies, indoor positioning may sound the dullest, but it’s completely the opposite. Like an insanely accurate GPS, indoor positioning establishes one’s spatial coordinates within a building. That is, you can find yourself anytime in space. The architectural implications will affect everything from how we design to how we construct and use architecture.

Many companies have tried to solve the problem of establishing a user’s location within a building. Nothing gained mainstream adoption until mid-last year when Apple introduced iBeacon for the iPhone. With one software update, Apple suddenly allowed millions of iPhone users to triangulate their location in rooms tagged with iBeacon transmitters. Shortly thereafter, a slew of companies, from Disney to Qualcomm, followed Apple into the flourishing realm of indoor positioning.

Beacon sensors by Estimote
Estimote Beacon sensors by Estimote

Not surprisingly, retail stores were also among the first to embrace the technology. Apple, Macy’s, and Target all have iPhone apps that display promotions and product information based on where the customer is located inside their stores. The apps currently have a gimmicky feeling, but they represent only the first-generation applications of indoor positioning.

A more sophisticated application of this technology is on display at Disney World. For the past year, visitors to the Magic Kingdom have had the option to test a bracelet dubbed the MagicBand, which broadcasts the wearer’s location. For the user, Disney World becomes a more personalized experience. The band literally opens the park entrance and hotel doors. Costumed characters greet them by name, and official park photographs are linked to their online Disney account. In exchange, the band wearer lets Disney track their movements. (This has huge privacy implications, but that’s another discussion.)

Disney World wants to personalize their guests' experiences and more.
Courtesy Flickr user versageek Disney World wants to personalize their guests' experiences and more.

The implication for architects is that the design process becomes more data-intensive. Decisions about human behavior that an architect once based on intuition can instead be quantitatively tested, proven, or invalidated. Disney can make changes to their parks and observe exactly how the change affects visitor flow and spending.

Retail outlets have been gathering similar data by triangulating customer locations from the Wi-Fi signals broadcasted from their mobile phones. Like Disney, they are using the data to test new store layouts and observe how it impacts customer spending. In a sense, it is not the customer that is being tracked as much as it is the performance of the architect.

Indoor positioning will also offer us new ways to interact with space. Long overdue for improvement are navigation tools for the visually impaired, tools to track construction sequencing accurately, and HVAC systems that can adapt to individual behavior.

For now, the future of indoor positioning lies primarily in the hands of device manufactures and facility operators. Despite the design implications, architects are once again on the reactionary end of the technology. One largely unexplored opportunity for architects to move forward is to supply the models of interior spaces that indoor positioning systems need to know how a space is configured. Architects already produce these models in the course of producing construction documentation, and a few in-house architects at retail corporations are doing likewise. Beyond supplying models, as the technology matures, architecture firms can expect indoor positioning will bring about a more data-rich and analytic design process whose merits can and will be judged quantitatively.

The type of built environment resulting from this technology is open for grabs. To ensure it leads to the creation and management of better buildings, architects need to be leading manufactures, facility owners, and the public to see the positive potentials for indoor positioning.

Daniel Davis is a senior building information specialist at Case, Inc. His technology column will appear on this website each month. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

The Disney World photo is used with permission via a Creative Commons license with Flickr user versageek.