Wi-Fi Aware aims to discover nearby people, places and things

With proximity-based social networking all the rage, the Wi-Fi Alliance wants to make sure Wi-Fi has a foot in that door, so it's offering a new certification program, called Wi-Fi Certified Wi-Fi Aware, for validating technology that enables products to discover other devices, applications and information nearby before making a Wi-Fi connection.

Increasingly, proximity is becoming a critical element in connected experiences. "It's a huge and growing market," particularly due to developments in people's usage patterns, Kevin Robinson, director of program marketing at the Wi-Fi Alliance, told FierceWirelessTech.

About one-third of mobile users are active users of social networks, and they spend about two hours a day on social channels. Proximity awareness is a large part of enriching that "social-on-the-go" experience, whether it's retailers or other venue operators looking to drive additional revenue or to enhance their customers' experience at their locations, he said.

Add to that the massive adoption of apps like Tinder and WeChat that leverage proximity to provide a better experience and enhanced functionality for their users, and the trend is clear. "All this really speaks to and highlights the opportunity for technology that meets the needs of this segment," he said.

However, a lot of existing technologies have shortcomings, such as relying on line of sight or user check-ins rather than "true proximity," he said. Wi-Fi Aware was designed to improve on existing proximity offerings by delivering a truly "here-and-now" contextual awareness solution that works indoors and in dense environments without requiring a cellular, Wi-Fi or GPS connection. Once a service has been discovered, an app can initiate a Wi-Fi connection for follow-up activity such as sharing photos or playing a multiplayer game.

Robinson described a process whereby Wi-Fi Aware devices go through discovery and synchronization, establishing a common "heartbeat" that triggers devices to form clusters and exchange messages for immediate discovery. You could imagine you're waiting for a movie to start and all the devices in the theater are on this common heartbeat, waking up and going to sleep. As additional people walk into the theater from the lobby, their devices will find that cluster and pick up the same heartbeat, increasing the breadth and number of devices and services that are discoverable.

"These tiny message sent during the wake-up periods allow many devices to hear and be heard during a short window, so while Wi-Fi Aware maintains that power efficiency, it also delivers a very high probability of discovering something quickly," he said. "With Wi-Fi Aware, it's very much a real-time discovery, it's power efficient" and it's responsive in telling you what's around at that time.

Wi-Fi Aware is based on technology developed within the Wi-Fi Alliance called Neighbor Awareness Network (NAN). It provides a number of capabilities, including "always on," so applications can discover services or devices around them. Once the application makes its preferences or desires known, the Wi-Fi discovery engine runs in the background, discovering what's in the vicinity and what might be of interest to the user. It's not something where the user has to constantly instruct the device to be on the lookout, he said.

Users will be able to control privacy settings and opt in to desired notifications. Use cases include finding friends at a concert who might have a better seat and are exchanging photos, or at a trade show, so that attendees can get an alert when someone of interest is nearby, triggering the chance for an in-person meeting if they so desire. Robison said it works well even in crowded places like trade shows and concerts.

According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, Wi-Fi Aware and Wi-Fi Direct are complementary technologies. Wi-Fi Direct is a way for devices to connect with peripherals like printers or cameras, while Wi-Fi Aware is primarily about device-to-device communications. Once a Wi-Fi Aware connection has been established, a user could use Wi-Fi Direct to print or share large amounts of information.

The first Wi-Fi Certified Wi-Fi Aware products are the Broadcom BCM4358, the Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260, the Marvell Avastar 88W8897 802.11ac low power Wi-Fi combo chip and the Realtek RTL8812AE 2x2 a/b/g/n/ac MiniCard.

For more:
- see the release
- see this TechCrunch article
- see this LightReading article

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