What is Geofencing?

Buying a house is said to be about three things – location, location, location – and with the arrival of smart homes, that mantra will become indisputable. Forget the smart kettle, the connected toothbrush, and the fridge that texts you when you’re low on milk. No, the most impressive technology destined for the smart homes, and workplaces, of the future is geofencing.

Geofencing is best defined as a ‘virtual perimeter’ for a real-world geographic area, where location data is gathered from devices and sent to the cloud. At its simplest, the technology enables smart home devices to operate automatically based on your location both inside and outside of the home. One potential and very probably use is with multi-room music. It’s now possible to have speakers in every room of your house and to control these ‘zones’ using an app on a smartphone, but in future, a house full of geofences would be able to tell exactly where you (or, rather, where you smartphone is), and for music to automatically follow you from room to room. Ditto for lighting, and even heating.

Geofencing outside the home

However, geofencing really impresses when you step outside. By combining an awareness of both the user’s current location using the global positioning system (GPS) and proximity to various locations, Siri can remind you to put the washing on when you get home. Google’s new API lets developers experiment with more contextual apps, too, by allowing GPS to determine functionality; for example, a workout app could be launched when you reach the gym. It’s clever stuff, but geofencing – together with the essential ingredient of cloud computing – is already helping create some far more intelligent boundaries.

How about the heating/air-con/oven in your home kicking-in when you are 10 miles away? All you need for that is a smart thermostat that can talk to your phone or car via the cloud. In this scenario, the action could change according to how long you will take to arrive home; Google Maps can already calculate that according to life road conditions. More impressive would be a TV that can see where you are and calculate how long it will take you to get home, perhaps recording the evening news for you if it doesn’t think you’ll make it. The same could apply to a pet feeder.

Smart homes aside, geofencing has huge industrial potential. By combining GPS with radio frequency identification (RFID) to define geographical boundaries around industrial premises, staff can be kept away from danger. For instance, so-called smart mines are being fitted with both environmental sensors and WiFi and/or 4G connectivity; the instant a contractor steps across a geofence and into an area where monster trucks are rattling about, he gets a text message telling him to get out of that sector. Meanwhile, environmental sensors can alert everybody inside a geofence if levels of poisonous gas reach dangerous levels. All of these scenarios use the cloud to gather the data, make the calculations, and automate the actions.

However, geofencing’s next location is destined to be in push notifications; vouchers for shops sent to those crossing the virtual fence could prove annoying more than tempting, but how about everyone in an audience being sent a discount on a band’s new album? Or automated check-in as soon as you cross the threshold of a hotel? If that hotel also allows smartphone door entry, geofencing suddenly becomes hugely appealing, but it can also be used to keep people and things out. Geofences aren’t just about the cloud, but the sky, too, as anyone piloting a drone near an airport may soon be about to discover.

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