Last month, Apple confirmed its acquisition of WiFiSLAM, a Silicon Valley-based startup that specializes in indoor mapping. Despite a lack of details from Apple regarding its plans for the startup, stories pegging WiFiSLAM as the company’s latest weapon in its mapping arsenal flooded the news stream. While the technology would certainly fill a critical gap in Apple Maps, this deal marks something bigger: the growing exploration of indoor mapping.
With most of the developed outside world already mapped, people can easily get from one place to another by using a GPS solution or breaking out its old-fashioned paper counterpart. Mobile technologies have advanced to conveniently navigate the great outdoors with the drop of a “you are here” pin. Until recently, the concept of providing the same location abilities for indoor use was left unexplored. Yet, the current surge of interest by software developers, phone manufacturers, and even some Web search providers, has opened up the field of indoor mapping and all of its potential.
Indoor Mapping: What’s the Fuss?
If you have ever used a GPS-based app to get to the mall or grocery store, you know that the program can only get you to the front door and renders almost useless once inside the building. Mall rats have to turn to a physical directory for help locating a specific store.
Enter indoor mapping. Rather than use satellites to pinpoint locations, like GPS, indoor mapping is not dependent on one line of sight to provide location updates. Some indoor mapping companies like WiFiSLAM utilize a building’s various Wi-Fi signals to detect a phone user’s location, a process known as Wi-Fi fingerprinting.
Other software developers take different approaches for indoor mapping, such as using a phone’s Bluetooth capability or using tools within a handset, like the accelerometer or gyroscope, to supply position information. Some companies even act as digital cartographers and create virtual indoor maps of locations, while others provide businesses with the means to do their own mapping.
Google has pushed its indoor mapping software to businesses and organizations worldwide, collecting over 10,000 maps. These include floor plans of Wembley Stadium in London, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and the Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. With such information integrated into its Maps offering, Google lets users find the exact location of their gate in an airport or the nearest bathroom in a crowded stadium.
Taking a similar approach, Microsoft has gathered over 3,000 floor plans for Bing Maps. With big companies like Google and Microsoft teaming up with smaller players in the field to tap into their resources, the indoor mapping trend has gained more momentum; and more so now that Apple has acquired WiFiSLAM.
Nokia has also expressed interest in the technology, proposing a plan to capture the location of a user by maximizing a phone’s Bluetooth capability through additional proprietary beacons inside a building. The Finnish company is currently testing the technology in several locations, including grocery stores and sports arenas. The U.K.-based company CSR is developing a Bluetooth-based indoor mapping technology as well, focusing on beacons in buildings or moving assets for tracking a location.
The company has also experimented with using a phone’s accelerometer, magnetometer, and Wi-Fi capability to find a precise position. Startups like Wifarer, Meridian, Point Inside, and ByteLight are also exploring the realms of indoor mapping, with the latter using existing LED bulbs as location detectors. As the technology behind indoor mapping advances, so do the possibilities of innovative applications and solutions based on the software.
The retail industry is among the first to truly embrace indoor mapping-based technology. Macy’s made shopping in its Herald Square store in New York less confusing by providing shoppers with an app that finds their position in the store and provides personal directions to various departments and brands in the building. Developed by Meridian, the map is said to offer 3 to 5 feet of accuracy. Walgreens also included location tracking in its app, partnering with Aisle411 to let customers make shopping lists and see where the items appear on their store map.
However, the potential applications of indoor mapping are incredibly diverse and move beyond making store locations easy to navigate. Combined with the multimedia capabilities of smartphones, indoor mapping provides another outlet for pushing location-relevant information. Last year, the Royal BC Museum of Natural History in Canada teamed up with Wifarer and introduced a feature in its app that presents related content about exhibits to smartphone owners standing in front of them.
The Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta took a similar approach, experimenting with an app feature that shows visitors exactly where they are in the museum and provides supplement information about the displays around them. The app relies on Wi-Fi access points within the building to detect smartphones within the coverage area.
Mapping the Next Frontier
As the scope of indoor mapping solutions expands, more solutions will become available for various purposes. College universities could benefit from indoor navigation apps that allow students to chart classrooms and get around campus. Hospitals could create apps that help visitors get from one building to another or use the technology to streamline the movement of patients. Businesses might adopt programs that can track when employees arrive to work based on their smartphones, or employ the technology to enhance their customer service. For instance, a restaurant could develop an app for consumers to track how many tables are available, while a store could create an app that pushes out loyalty coupons for shoppers nearby.
With a variety of big and small companies now exploring the indoor navigation field, it is only a matter of time before more indoor mapping-based applications pop up.