The potential of context aware computing

October 7, 2013

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Companies now have a powerful tool to notify, enhance, extend, and rationalize situations to augment our human decision-making capability. It not only helps us to make better, more informed decisions, but it truly becomes an extension of us.

Imagine driving home late at night after work, an inattentive driver plows into the side of your vehicle. Before your wheels stop spinning, a sensor in your vehicle recognizes the severity of the impact, contacts 911 so emergency vehicles can be dispatched. While the ambulance is in route, your medical records and insurance information are communicated to the receiving hospital, your driver’s history is forwarded to the police, your auto insurance company has been notified, and your vital signs are sent from your body sensor to the approaching rescue vehicle. The EMTs know exactly how to treat you even before they arrive at the crash site and the police have contacted your family to let them know you have been in an accident. Does this sound like science fiction? Actually, today some of it is already happening and some of it is coming soon. Welcome to your new “best friend” – context aware computing.

Context aware computing refers to a style of computing in which situational and environmental information is used to anticipate immediate needs and proactively offer enriched, situation-aware responses. Instead of being a singular technology, it exists as a result of combining four disruptive technologies that are reaching critical mass:

  • Smart mobile devices that provide proximity detection to other devices, network access, an application platform, individual identification, and personalization
  • Embedded sensors – microprocessors and data collection devices that provide passive and active data based on their function or location
  • Big data analytics that enable the analysis of personal data and proximity data, and overlay it with services to create context for the user
  • Cloud computing that hosts and scales the services, analytics, and intelligence. It is the computing in context aware computing.

These components work in unison to continuously acquire, model, reason, and notify subscribed users. This constant interaction keeps personal information and situational awareness current.

Context aware computing helps companies connect with their customers

The opening life or death scenario dramatically underscores the potential that this technology provides, but it can have relevance under other circumstances. For example, a context aware solution could also provide collision repair recommendations based on the type of car and the driver’s sponsoring insurance company. If the damage is too great, it can leverage a predictive model to identify automobiles with high safety ratings that are in the range of the payoff amount of the driver’s insurance policy. A data analytics engine processes the driver’s auto preferences based on previous search history on the web, demographics, family situation, etc. to provide relevant recommendations. The new world of context aware computing offers qualified advice to help you make better decisions. It is like having a best friend that knows insurance, safety, and what you really need in a car.

Melding human and machine to create the next “Killer App”

Companies are already leveraging data collected from their customers and employees from surveys, transaction patterns, and web habits. Combine this intelligence with real-time situational awareness, and companies now have a powerful tool to notify, enhance, extend, and rationalize situations to augment our human decision-making capability. It not only helps us to make better, more informed decisions, but it truly becomes an extension of us.

Mobile technology is typically defined as a device that brings together place and space and puts both of them in our pockets, but this definition fails to capture context aware computing’s real potential. It is time to think of the mobile device as a physical extension of ourselves to blend contextual awareness with personal awareness. The day is coming when the device will serve as your personal area network, which means that you will sense other devices and communicate with them seamlessly without having to look at screens or to hit buttons or keys. Just imagine the outcome in the introductory scenario. Having this capability would enable your new virtual best friend – context aware computing – to help avoid the collision the first place.


Richard Rowe contributed to this post.

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Chris Curran

Principal and Chief Technologist, PwC US Tel: +1 (214) 754 5055 Email

Vicki Huff Eckert

Global New Business & Innovation Leader Tel: +1 (650) 387 4956 Email

Mark McCaffery

US Technology, Media and Telecommunications (TMT) Leader Tel: +1 (408) 817 4199 Email