07/15/2015 12:55 EDT | Updated 07/15/2016 05:59 EDT

Wi-Fi Aware enables location-based apps without GPS, cell service

A new Wi-Fi technology will soon let smartphones and other Wi-Fi enabled devices easily find each other and communicate without a cellular or internet connection or GPS.

Wi-Fi Aware is a way for devices and apps to scan their surroundings for other devices and apps they might want to connect to and exchange small messages before making a more solid Wi-Fi connection. Some uses suggested in a promotional video including:

- Finding someone to play a game with on a subway train.

- Finding neaby people to share photos with at a crowded concert.

- Sending push notifications from a museum about an app that provides more information about exhibits and offers discounts at the gift shop.

The new technology was announced this week by the WiFi Alliance, a collaboration of companies involved in making or selling Wi-Fi devices or components, including Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Intel and Samsung.

Location-based services have been billed as a convenient way to target information to people, such as shoppers, where and when they need it, but they have also raised privacy concerns. Many of the technologies used to deliver them also have weaknesses and limitations.

In Wi-Fi Aware-certified devices, the service runs continuously in the background, looking for services or devices that the user has configured it to seek out.

While it only allows the exchange of basic information, users who find what they're looking for can establish a more solid connection via Wi-Fi, if it's available, or Wi-Fi Direct, which allows some devices to connect directly without an internet connection.

Regular Wi-Fi has sometimes been blamed as a battery drain in smartphones, but the Wi-Fi Alliance says Wi-Fi Aware operates in a very power efficient way "though a unique process of discovery and synchronization, establishing a common 'heartbeat'".

Works indoors, in crowds

It's billed as working well even indoors — somewhere GPS doesn't work very well, limiting the use of GPS in location-based services.

Wi-Fi Aware will also work in crowded places like concerts and protests without a cellular, Wi-Fi or GPS connection. Its range is similar to that of a regular WiFi connection — several dozen metres.

So far, the Wi-Fi Aware technology has been incorporated into a wireless chips from Broadcom, Intel, Marvell and RealTek.

"Wi-Fi Aware closes many of the gaps preventing other technologies from offering a rich experience where users can fully engage with the world around them," said Clint Borwn, director of product marketing for Broadcom Corp., in a statement.

Existing technologies used for location-based services all have weaknesses. GPS doesn't work well indoors, regular Wi-Fi is not very power efficient, NFC has an extremely short range, and Apple's iBeacon, based on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) is designed to work only with Apple devices.

This week, Google announced its own competitor to iBeacon, known as Eddystone, which can be compatible with any Bluetooth Smart device, regardless of whether its Apple, Android, or some other platform.

Kevin Robinson, director of product marketing for the Wi-Fi Alliance, said another advantage of Wi-Fi Aware over beacon technologies is they offer only one-way conversations.

"So you can discover proximity to a uniquely identified service or device but the benefits stop there," he said in an email. "Wi-Fi Aware enables a two-way conversation that doesn't rely on the cloud."

For example, he said, existing proximity-based apps can notify travellers that they're near an airport security checkpoint. But Wi-Fi Aware would let the app ask about wait times at that and nearby security checkpoints.