The quirkily named GIMBAL smartphone technology, which was just transferred from Qualcomm Labs to the chip maker's retail services unit, may also prove a watershed for cellular consumers willing to trade location privacy for shopping deals and convenience.
If it proliferates, GIMBAL-powered devices could spur more location-based digital content and advertising — outside the need for Internet Wi-Fi service.
The mobile technology proved itself at the SXSW show in Austin by helping a Vancouver, British Columbia-based wireless events start-up automatically establish — and later dismantle — a series of secure, ad-hoc networks for 150 (truly) interactive sessions of the confab.
"This wasn't possible before GIMBAL. GPS wasn't precise enough" for spontaneous indoor mapping and data-gathering at live events, says Jeff Sinclair, co-founder of Eventbase Technologies, the Canadian company that provided SXSW with the service.
The start-up previously had used a rougher version of the service for this year's Winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia, at the 2012 summer games in London, and at the 2010 Winter Olympics in its Canadian hometown.
Based on the successful SXSW trial, GIMBAL-powered similar wireless services will be coming to iPhone and iPad users at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in April and to the Cannes Lion advertising awards show in the South of France in June, Sinclair told me in a follow-up e-mail this week.
The more-advanced service, which allowed Apple users in the same SXSW sessions to vote and interact digitally with strangers in the same room, is "a game changer" and "the most innovative thing" Eventbase has ever ! done at such a conference, Sinclair added.
"Outside the Olympics, no event is more complicated than South By Southwest," which had 6,000 sessions this year, he said.
These secure, localized data networks, which Qualcomm Labs began testing in Japan more than a year ago, can also be used in grocery stores and other retail locations with short-range beacons built into product kiosks and displays.
If those beacons prove as effective at finding coupon-hungry shoppers as they did at organizing SXSW attendees, the technology could be a boon for Qualcomm.
Although it's "pretty early" to tell for sure, proximity-based services powered by GIMBAL have "the potential to be a significant business," Qualcomm President Derek Aberle, said during an interview Wednesday at USA TODAY's San Francisco bureau.
The Qualcomm technology makes use of a new type of Bluetooth communications that can broadcast and receive very short-range wireless signals.
Already used in high-end Apple devices, it's not yet available in Android smartphones and tablets, which don't yet broadcast a user's presence to a temporary local network.
Mobile consumers with these so-called Bluetooth Low Energy-equipped devices can opt in to such networks to play ad-hoc scavenger hunts and other social games at live events, without having to "check in" via their accounts on Facebook or LinkedIn.
John Shinal, technology columnist for USA TODAY.(Photo: USA TODAY)
And while on-the-fly networks based on less-precise GPS chips can be "spoofed," or attacked by hackers who pretend to be another person or persons, that's not true of GIMBAL, Sinclair told me March 8, as we stepped past an iBeacon kiosk and into a medium-size SXSW conference! room at ! the Austin Convention Center.
The new Qualcomm technology "provides a secure layer over the top of iBeacon.
Once we were inside the room, the temporary network recognized Sinclair's iPhone 5s, allowing him to exchange messages with others nearby.
During that session, those discussions — or any instant survey results of audience members, as in larger SXSW keynote sessions — were displayed in the front of the room. Yet 30 minutes after the session ended, the local wireless network ceased to exist.
"We don't need the Internet," to create localized, personalized ad hoc networks, Sinclair says.
Nor any other Web-based messaging services which persist in time and are used by people who already have a prior digital connection, as with Facebook "friends" or Twitter "followers."