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Nokia demos indoor-location tracking with 'white space' tech

Nokia and 17 other technology and broadcast companies are working in the U.K. to demonstrate how white-space TV spectrum can be used to help track and locate devices indoors.

Nokia and several other technology companies are showing off some innovative uses for unlicensed "white space" technology in a trial in the United Kingdom.

For the past 10 months, the handset maker has been working to demonstrate applications for the white-space spectrum in trial alongside 17 other technology companies and TV broadcasters, including the BBC, BSkyb, BT, Microsoft, Virgin Media, and Samsung.

"White space" refers to unused wireless spectrum that sits between broadcast TV channels and was originally used as a buffer to mitigate interference. For the most part, white-space spectrum is unused. But in some places, it's used for other wireless gear such as microphones. As a result, technology companies that want to use the spectrum for Internet access have had to demonstrate that by using a database query system interference can be mitigated. And the white-space spectrum can essentially be used between different entities.

This particular trial, which took place at the Imperial War Museum near Cambridge, shows how useful white-space technology can be used for indoor location-based services. Satellite GPS is great for locating users outside, but the signal is lost indoors. The white-space technology and database makes it much easier to map and track things indoors. Researchers set up the demonstration in the hopes of showing off the technology to U.K. regulators, who are expected to put a framework in place to allow white-space spectrum to be used.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission approved the use of these unlicensed airwaves in 2010. But so far no devices have been built that actually use the unlicensed spectrum. The demonstration in the U.K. is a good example of how the technology can be useful.

According to an article about the demonstration on Nokia's Web site, researcher Scott Probasco used the unlicensed wireless spectrum to set up a wireless network that delivers information on different exhibits to a Nokia N9. Since the technology hasn't been put into a chip yet, a large portable receiver was connected via USB to the Nokia N9.

White-space devices naturally have good location features built in, mainly because to use the spectrum, the devices must check a database to make sure that they are not operating on spectrum that's already being used by other devices.

In the trial, researchers used this location tracking to push rich multimedia content to the device.

"You know when you go to a museum and you put the headset on, and listen to the information about what you're seeing," Probasco told Nokia for its article on the trial. "Well, this basically does away with that."

The Nokia N9 can detect a museum patron's location as he or she wanders through the exhibit. The museum is able to push tidbits of information, such as a video or text, directly to the device as someone passes by a particular part of the museum.

Probasco said that eventually store owners could use the same technology to deliver marketing information to customers as they shop in the store, pushing coupons and other special offers to shoppers.

There have already been several demonstrations of how white spaces can be used throughout the world. And regulators have been working to establish rules and set the spectrum aside for unlicensed use. But getting devices in the hands of customers is still a few years away. First, a standard needs to be developed. It's currently being worked on. After that, chips can be developed and mass produced to fit inside smartphones and other products.

Meanwhile, Nokia and other technology companies are looking at doing other trials in places, such as Brazil, Singapore, and Finland.