How contextual awareness changes content delivery

Context-aware devices and apps give businesses a way to deliver highly personalized content -- but there are serious challenges to consider, an expert cautions.

Contextual awareness in applications and hardware can help deliver the right content at the right place, on the...

right devices at the right time. However, one wrong turn could mean the difference between a highly personalized customer experience and a downright creepy one.

A number of useful applications successfully deliver context-aware content. Waze, a community-driven navigation app, exhibits some contextual characteristics, including the user's location, routing and dynamic rerouting based on traffic conditions. It can also change its display format based on time of day, and provide alerts about and by other Waze users based on their relative location.

Google Search returns results based on location, derived from the user's IP address, current search activity and previous search trends. The search engine also intersperses results with advertisements and links based on previous searches for products and services.

Context-aware content is derived from a subset of a much larger computing discipline of context-aware computing. This discipline embraces the following:

  • Identity information about the user, such as habits; emotional states; social relationships and trends; location; nearby people; nearby objects; and physiological characteristics such as blood pressure, glucose levels, temperature and activity levels.
  • Contextual computing aspects, including connectivity, bandwidth, type of device and nearby device resources, such as printers.
  • Environmental contextual awareness, including light levels, background noise, traffic conditions, ambient temperature, wind speed and humidity.
  • Timing aspects, including time of day, week, month and year, and relative time, such as time before or after an event.

How far contextual awareness has come

With the meteoric growth of mobile and smart devices that are location-aware, the focus is on delivering dynamic, context-aware content.

Back when all devices were tethered to a network cable, content was largely static and not easily managed and commoditized. Content management platforms for nontechnical people to use to develop, manipulate, review and publish content were important. As content became more targetable and interactive, enterprise collaboration and social media tools in the enterprise gained steam, along with technologies to support marketing efforts -- the focus was on personalized content and advertising.

With the meteoric growth of mobile and smart devices that are location-aware, the focus is on delivering dynamic, context-aware content.

Contextual awareness significantly increases the value of content and could ultimately help save lives: A surgeon can use context-aware tools to see relevant biological signs and guidance as the procedure is under way, a search and rescue worker can see location information alongside dangerous areas and likely clear access paths and a self-driving car is able to take evasive action to avoid a crash. In a business context, there are the usual needs of increasing efficiency and productivity, driving innovation and managing content security holistically by delivering content to the right people.

Context-aware content challenges, predictions

Determining the right context the user is interested in at any point remains a challenge. It requires an expanded user profile that may not be attainable or supported by country-specific privacy regulations. Also, the computing power required to process context, especially if executing locally, impacts small-footprint devices that have limited battery life.

In addition, there aren't common standards around context, meaning that information reusability and application integration with respect to context becomes problematic. There's also a fine line between building applications that are useful and ones that are annoying or creepy.

Most advances, so far, have been made in the entertainment and consumer world with relatively simple context-based content in terms of GPS mapping location: film, book, music and restaurant recommendations based on user preferences.

The business world is also exploiting opportunities, especially in the areas where location is a key criteria, such as field services and equipment maintenance. Contextual-awareness in the enterprise is much harder to address; contextually-derived content on a user's movement around the office space does not add value. Value tends to come from how people move around applications and interact with processes. There may come a time when I sit at my desk to do some work and my computer has already prepared the screen in anticipation of what I'm expected to do.

In a follow-up article, I'll cover some common context-aware applications we use today, including Amazon, Google Search, Waze and Microsoft Office Delve, and assess them using some simple contextual awareness criteria and also discuss techniques for building highly personalized content.

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