You’ve seen it with the rollout of Google Glass, the fanfare over wearable tech and at the movies (Her). Call it contextual computing or ubiquitous computing or the e-life, as we’re wont to do. It’s what happens when the digital and physical are so entwined, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

And it’s happening right now, as businesses start to combine mobile computing with big data analytics and the Internet of Things, said J Schwan, CEO of Solstice Mobile, a mobile strategy and application development firm in Chicago, and a
speaker at Fusion 2014 CEO-CIO Symposium in Madison, Wis.

Mobile operating systems such as iOS and Android already support the Bluetooth Low Energy protocol, which means mobile devices can interact with products like the Estimote Beacon without draining the battery dry. About the size and shape of
a colored grip found on climbing gym walls, a Beacon sticks directly to an interior wall of a building. When a user enters the room,
the Beacon interacts with a mobile app on a user’s phone to provide “microlocation capability,” Schwan said.

One obvious use case? Retail. If a customer passes the Beacon located in the snack foods aisle, retailers can send a coupon to his mobile device. And as contextual computing matures, it won’t be a coupon for just any snack product. Retailers will know that this particular customer “liked” Newman’s Own products on Facebook twice in the last month and purchased a bag of Newman’s Own
Organics Spelt Pretzels in the last 60 days, and that people who buy spelt pretzels also tend to buy sweet potato crisps, so the coupon pushed to the customer will be highly personalized.

Who’s using that conference room?

“But the capability and the applications of microlocation technology extend far beyond a retail
establishment,” Schwan said. “Everything from factories to warehouses to schools to hospitals can cater experiences to you and start changing human workflow.”

Even the doldrums of a typical office environment can be transformed by contextual computing, Schwan said. He should know because he’s putting his money where his mouth is. Schwan “Beacon-enabled” Solstice Mobile’s 36,000 square feet to create what he calls the smart office.

“One of the biggest pain points in our office is fighting over conference rooms,” he said. Microlocation technology provides employees with an additional layer of information. In the past, they knew what conference rooms were scheduled to be open at any given time; today, because of Beacons and mobile devices, employees can also find out what conference rooms happen to be empty right now.

Another example? Because Schwan’s office is a development shop, he encourages face-to-face interaction. So he’s added the in-office location information of employees to the company directory. Today, an employee can do a simple search to find a co-worker’s email address and current location. “Of course, the employee has the ability to turn off that presence tracking,” he said. “It’s a little Big Brother-y, but it works.”

Value must outweigh the risk

Not surprisingly, the big contextual computing questions for CIOs aren’t that different from the questions they’re facing now: How can they gather, analyze and store all of that data in a manner that will make it worth the business’ while? Big data analytics technologies and cloud computing can lend a helping hand, Schwan said, but for many businesses, investing or even experimenting with that kind of technology is still a goal, not a reality.

Nicole Laskowski is a senior news writer for and She covers CIO strategies for analytics, business intelligence and data management. This blog was originally published on