Oklahoma Sooners use beacons, sensors to find rooms on massive campus

Beacon technology still in early-adopter stage, analysts report

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The University of Oklahoma has begun rolling out beacon technology to help students find study rooms and class information in its central library and other buildings by using their smartphones as they move about the vast campus in Norman, Okla.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon hardware and new analytics software from Aruba, accompanied by GPS and new sensors working over Wi-Fi, can put the power of smartphones, carried by virtually all 29,000 students, in direct contact with the massive and growing amounts of university data. Aruba is a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company.

"Students already have the smartphone technology in their pockets, so as they move about the giant buildings on campus, the user experience is more accessible. We can tie all our vast online resources to a location, combining the physical with the digital worlds," said Matt Cook, emerging technology librarian for OU's central library.

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Aruba’s new sensors work with a wall power outlet and Wi-Fi to monitor functions on beacons used to ping smartphones for locations and alerts.

When a student wants to find a quiet group study room in the library, he or she gets turn-by-turn indoor navigation via mapping and GPS and then, once in the room, can be connected quickly to online instructions on how to connect a laptop to a large room display or other technology.

"For an incoming freshman who has never been to a building this big — it's seven stories and hundreds of thousands of square feet — you can use the tool you already have — the smartphone -- and get navigation and location-based content," he said.

Students can also use the maps produced by the system to find safe locations in the event of a tornado or other emergency. In one recent example, by using a beacon near one room, students could find out that a virtual reality (VR) talk was going to be held there at a specified time. (The university already has made a commitment to VR and has created VR fly-throughs for chemistry students wearing Oculus Rift headsets so they can learn about RNA molecules. A full-immersion VR classroom is also being built, with custom VR chairs.)

Last year, the beacons were deployed on a single renovated floor in the library and have now been expanded to the rest of the library and three other buildings. In a third phase, beacons will go campuswide. Later, beacons might be deployed in the wider town beyond campus.

One focus of the four-building deployment has been on the library's collection of original manuscripts by Galileo from the 1500s. Smartphone users can follow a blue dot indoors or a green dot outdoors to find related Galileo exhibits.

"It's a very big campus, so following the route down to one of the buildings on the smartphone makes it more convenient," Cook said.

Some day, the system could be sophisticated enough to help users find specific books or collections.

So far, there are about 50 Aruba BLE beacons in use on campus, all of them battery powered. The newest innovation is six Aruba sensors that operate with power from wall sockets and track the status of the 50 beacons, telling an Aruba Meridian server via Wi-Fi if a beacon is active or not. Cook said that as the system expands potentially to hundreds of beacons, it's important to have sensors to monitor the beacons so that a staffer doesn't have to wander the hallways to do the same work.

Aruba's BLE beacons at OU work in a wireless network configuration that's typical for the industry, Aruba explained. Beacons are simple devices that ping or chirp either to sensors, to register their status, or to a person's smartphone via Bluetooth Low Energy. The beacons themselves don't connect to the central server. When a person's smartphone with its BLE radio receiver picks up the beacon's chirp, a smartphone app that is configured to receive those particular beacons is notified. Then, the smartphone and its custom app connect via Wi-Fi (or cellular, if available) to Aruba's Meridian servers; the server then tells the app to perform certain tasks, such as launching a predetermined map. The server also offers other centralized data, which could be about Galileo's life, for instance, or other information.

The user's phone knows its location on a map in relation to each beacon, but that's possible only by virtue of the Wi-Fi or cellular connection made by the smartphone to the server. "The beacons actually do very little," Cook explained.

Aruba Beacon Analytics software helps Cook gain useful user data, like how many unique visitors have used the beacon network. That kind of information can be used to help figure out where to place future beacons and how the network should grow.

Problems connecting with Android smartphones

So far, the beacon and sensor network has performed pretty well, Cook said, although there has been difficulty tracking Android smartphone users.

"It's been hit-or-miss because the Android experience has been tricky," he said. "Every Android user has a different piece of hardware, so you don't always get clean tracking." That means Android users may not see themselves on a map with a dot. iPhone users haven't experienced the problem.

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