Proximity through the eyes of Wi-Fi Aware and Google Nearby – An Industry Insight

Franck Legendre By Franck Legendre

Last week was the forefront of two major tech announcements: Google’s Nearby API and Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi Aware certification program.

Wi-Fi Aware, also called Wi-Fi NAN for Neighbor Awareness Networking, extends “Wi-Fi with real-time and energy efficient discovery” according to the Wi-Fi Alliance. The certification program is the last step before first chips being produced by chip makers are certified and can be commercialized to smartphone and access point manufacturers.

Google Nearby provides a proximity API, Nearby Messages, for iOS and Android devices to discover and communicate with each other. Nearby will be provided through a forthcoming update of the Google Play Services.

These are two great pieces of news. Why? First, proximity is gaining momentum and a key player – Google – is now entering the scene. Second, Wi-Fi Aware has the potential to become a key enabler technology for proximity and we can’t wait getting our hands on it.

That said, let’s not get too excited too soon and go through a quick reality check.

Nathan Carter - BRAVO LIMA UDON ELEPHANT, 2009 - © FL/MCA Chicago, Sep. 2010.

Nathan Carter – BRAVO LIMA UDON ELEPHANT, 2009 – © FL/MCA Chicago, Sep. 2010.

Wi-Fi Aware or Wi-Fi Direct v2.0?

As fancy as it sounds, Wi-Fi Aware is only a revamp of Wi-Fi Direct’s neighbor detection with three major USPs and improvements: always on, battery efficient and scaling with crowd. Furthermore, not to dampen hopes but every new technology has its own lifecycle and maturity stages. Observing this for many years now, I expect first smartphones to embed Wi-Fi-Aware certified chips to be announced at the Mobile World Congress early March 2016. Besides, nothing ensures that iOS to Android cross-platform compatibility will prevail. It is very likely that iOS and Android will integrate Wi-Fi Aware in their respective existing frameworks: iOS for its “proprietary” AirDrop or Multipeer Connectivity Framework and Android for the p2p API. And Wi-Fi Direct will still be needed for p2p data exchange. Hence, I don’t expect major changes compared to today’s API and frameworks except that it will allow peer discovery to continuously run in the background . Last but not least, every technology – especially wireless ones – need time to reach maturity (i.e. bug fixing) and also to provide full compatibility between different “fragmented” devices’ hosting chips from different manufacturers (guess who I’m looking at? 😉 – this will be the topic of one of my next blog post with a retrospective on Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct and BLE’s early days.

Google Nearby or Sci-Fi?

Only little information was leaked on what Nearby’s API provides and how it works. We’ll have to wait a few more weeks until Nearby is unlocked for real. What is known for sure from Nearby’s Product Manager and Lead Engineer is that Nearby “uses a combination of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and inaudible sound (using the device’s speaker and microphone) to establish proximity.” A few (selected) Apps will provide a proximity feature within their app. But the main spoiler came from the Google Nearby Lead Software Engineer himself replying to a comment on an Android news page: “In order for the API to work, the users of both devices have to be in a special screen within the app. Because of this, Nearby doesn’t use battery in the background, only when you’re actively using it.” This is like, “Hey bro, be ready at 5 with your screen on at the crossing of G and L street, I’ll post you a message (and I’ll be behind you). Well, Nearby will be in Beta so I don’t expect too much at start… and as this is Google this will progress fast. Most appealing is the use of sound to detect proximity. It really sounds like sci-fi, uh? Well, not so sure. My former research colleagues have shown that localisation could be achieved with smartphones using sound. The problem with that is that either (i) it uses ultrasound and you’ll notice every time you open the “Discover Nearby” feature in your app that your dog starts getting crazy or (ii) more realistically, as Emanuel one of our new engineers speculated, it will rely on a proximity detector à la Shazam: sample the ambient noise from both phones and if there is a match, bingo, we’re nearby!

The Takeaway

I’m thrilled by these latest developments and a world where proximity interactions will be facilitated by technology. By the way, we forgot LTE-Direct, not yet under the spotlight but certainly a direct competitor to Wi-Fi Aware. LTE-Direct will be featured in one of my forthcoming blog posts and is a pretty long story as it involves one additional character, Telcos, who also want their share of the proximity pie. The good news is that, we, at Uepaa will leverage all these upcoming technologies for p2pkit.

However we decided a while ago not to wait another year and so made it happen now. p2pkit is about to leave beta stage with first clients, and we’ve optimized it to run continuously in the background and unnoticed. I truly believe proximity features will be the next big thing and this is why we’re investing to make it happen asap. Oliver, one of my Master students from ETH Zürich, is already working on scaling p2pkit to large crowds and first results are promising (more news soon).

Carpe Diem et Technicam!

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