the battle for the data in your spaces

Who will control the data flowing into and out of the built environment – and how will they be able to influence occupant behavior?

Whether or not we realize it, there is a revolution occurring that is poised to deeply impact human behavior: The physical spaces we inhabit are becoming portals to the virtual world. Vast quantities of data are flowing from the real world to the virtual world, and that data is increasingly returning to the physical spaces we inhabit to influence our actions and behaviors. 

With the billions of dollars of value created the past two decades via the accumulation of web-based user data, it should be quite apparent – and somewhat concerning – that whoever controls the digital relationship of a person to physical space will accumulate great power.

What’s going on?

Three major technological trends are driving this profound revolution:

1 – Sensors: Vast networks of cheap-yet-powerful IoT cloud-connected sensors are being installed throughout the spaces we occupy, ranging from old-fashioned occupancy sensors up to sophisticated AI-driven camera vision systems. Through these pervasive sensor networks, a vast quantity of live data is now available to analyze the way we humans occupy our physical spaces – from the malls we shop at to the offices we work in – whether we “opt-in” or not.

2 – Every Surface a Screen, Every Space an Interface: “Brick and mortar” spaces are becoming ever more dynamic and digital, with the explosion of digital signage, digital lighting and various other cloud-connected physical and environmental controls. Large format, direct-view LED screens can take on any size or shape with stunning high-resolution imagery, creating a hard-to-describe sensation of “real-life virtual reality.” Digital lighting can dramatically alter the feeling, perception and biological impacts of a space.  And every other human sense can be impacted via cloud-connected systems: What you see, smell, touch, feel or hear within a space can be precisely controlled to influence your behavior.

3 – Live Responsiveness: Processing power has become so cheap and pervasive that vast quantities of live data – such as with AI-driven camera vision systems – can be instantly analyzed and returned back to the real world. Our surroundings can be optimized in real time to precisely influence our personal behaviors.

We are entering a future where every object, zone or surface in an architectural space can be a digital interface that can monitor and influence occupant behavior. 

What can my organization do with all this technology?

With these systems, the operators of physical spaces gain 4 advantages:

1 – Accumulate knowledge about an occupant: Where did they go? Where did they linger? What did they touch? With whom did they travel with? What did they stare at and for how long? Did they look at their phone? In spaces like retail shops, aggregated data sets like this become incredibly valuable, just as much so as a website tracking its visitors’ clicks.

2 – Control the flow of data to an occupant in a space: Just imagine if all the lights in your space started flashing red – would you notice immediately? Environmental communications is a powerful medium and can be achieved through various levels of abstraction. Digital screens try to command our focused attention, but architectural spaces command our equally powerful peripheral attention. Marketers desperately want new channels to reach customers – what could be more powerful than surrounding someone in a dynamic brand theme?

3 – Optimize the desired behaviors of the occupant:  If you’re a large facility operator, would you want automatic or semi-automatic methods to influence your guest flow, where guests congregate, how long they linger – or don’t linger – in a space? Is one room too crowded? Your system will automatically know exactly how many people are occupying that room and can automatically adjust the digital lighting to make it feel less appealing, while making neighboring rooms more appealing. 

4 – Control an occupant’s perception of a space and overall experience: Want to tailor a brand experience to match a guest’s personal preferences? AI-driven camera vision systems can guess a person’s age and gender fairly accurately, yet anonymously. Just as brands want to demographically target their advertising spend, in the real world they want to demographically target and optimize the guest experiences they put forth.

Privacy concerns?

Isn’t this all just “big brother”? Surprisingly, no. All the scenarios described above can be done completely anonymously, meaning that occupant consent is not required, nor is any personalized information stored. Yet even anonymous information can have a profound effect on the digital optimization of the occupants in a physical space. Even if localities ban AI-driven facial recognition, there is a huge amount of potential in purely anonymous sensing systems.

Tracking itself is not a moral problem; the use of the data is the problem. It is best to consider the “phases of anonymity” that will occur as one progresses through physical spaces. There is a range of anonymity to personalization that can be established.

Automatic tailored experiences?

The moment a person “opts-in” their identity – such as through checking into their hotel room, using their security badge to enter their office building, or using a discount shopper card at a store – this real world behavioral data can be cross analyzed to improve a person’s experience. 

For example, imagine a business traveler arriving at a hotel from a faraway time zone. Upon check in, the CRM system can estimate that the business traveler is jet-lagged and will communicate to the room’s lighting and media systems to create a vivid and bright setting to help the traveler adjust their circadian clock. Now imagine a couple who pre-purchased a romantic getaway package. They may check into the exact same room but find the lighting subdued and romantic. In fact, everything from the lighting, to the video & audio media, to the temperature setting, to the daylight controls, even the scents and aromas can be tied to the central guest preferences system.

Perils and pitfalls?

Despite the compelling opportunities to create automatic, highly tailored personal experiences, brands need to understand the holistic experience they are creating by merging the virtual and real worlds together. People love to feel served, but hate to feel violated. Is one of your customers lingering in the pregnancy test section of a store? Are you going to start sending advertisements for baby clothes to their phones the moment they leave the store?

Plundering the digital value of the physical world?

Digital strategists can intuitively understand the current “land grab” happening in consumer residences with voice activated assistants that monitor all of the audio conversations in your home. People are willingly giving up acoustic privacy in their homes to companies like Google and Amazon in exchange for – what exactly? The convenience of barking commands at their music playlists instead of tapping their phones? The one-sided value proposition in favor of the mega tech companies is shocking.

Yet those of us in charge of developing branded environments and other location-based experiences need to realize the similar precipice we’re standing at: How fast this “land grab” might occur for data harvesting and occupant manipulation in commercial, retail or hospitality environments. 

Right now on commercial building projects, IoT sensor systems and digital media & lighting controls are fragmented, incoherent technical propositions. Regardless, this ménage of IoT propositions slowly bleeds away the digital value of physical spaces.

Unless corporate development teams establish an overall strategy for protecting and maximizing the digital value of their physical assets, tech companies might invade their physical locations first.  Especially worrisome is what may happen when all these niche IoT technologies are brought together, perhaps by a big tech player targeting data harvesting and occupant manipulation in commercial environments?  Do organizations like Marriot or Target really want a company like Google having deeply entangled access to all the data harvested in their physical locations?

The devil is in the details (of the terms and conditions)

Project managers and their design and construction teams need to be hyper-vigilant to retain full rights to all of the data generated in their buildings, even from the most innocuous seeming systems like lighting, HVAC or media systems. Will project teams foolishly give away the ephemeral yet invaluable digital assets of their physical spaces in exchange for some immediate, yet rather trivial “value propositions” and vague promises of ROI? The insistence on total ownership and control of all data generated from any system installed on a commercial project should, at bare minimum, be written into the specification package for that project.

A huge opportunity

For decades, experiential operators have been adjusting their physical locations to influence their guests en masse. But now, using a collection of digital IoT-connected technologies, brands that operate experiential environments can for the first time automatically individualize and personalize those environmental variables to create innovative new guest experiences.

Editor’s Note:

This article was originally published by Brad Koerner on LinkedIn in July 2022.

THE IMAGES used through this article were generated by Brad Koerner using Midjourney AI image generation.

Want more?

If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, check out my conference presentation Every Surface a Screen: Now What? from the 2022 Smart Building Conference.

Want even more?

Two decades ago I had proposed a theoretical concept of active objects, active surfaces and active zones, matrixed across luminosity, color, texture and dynamic effects within each element of an architectural space. More recently I discussed the division between data-driven environments and media-driven environments. I’ve also considered using these flows of data to drive revelations and resonance in our built environment.


Brad Koerner is a creative leader in advanced technologies for location-based experiences. Brad is an accomplished speaker and writer forecasting future trends in architectural design and technologies.