As navigation looks indoors, new uses appear

Location-based services inside buildings won't be focused on finding directions but on making decisions

The maps on smartphones and tablets soon may extend into buildings, but consumers and service providers won't use indoor maps the same as outdoor, participants in the location-based services business said on Wednesday.

Indoor location was a hot topic at the GPS-Wireless conference in Burlingame, California, where panelists also discussed privacy, advertising and new services that ride on top of navigation. The indoor technology is just beginning to emerge and may be getting a burst of hype, but it has the potential for useful applications, some speakers said.

Most agreed that mapping and navigation won't play out the same way indoors as outdoors. For one thing, people don't usually need indoor maps just to find their way through a building.

"Indoor, generally, the way you navigate isn't by looking at your screen and walking around and hoping you don't bump into people," said Nick Brachet, chief technology officer of Skyhook, a developer of location-based software. Instead, people can often use familiar cues to find their way around a building. As a result, the turn-by-turn navigation that powered the consumer GPS industry in its early stages won't be the first killer app of indoor navigation, he said.

Other objectives

Rather than telling you the one optimum way to get from place to place, indoor navigation might give you a route that best serves your interests, said Ankit Agarwal, CEO of Micello, which generates indoor maps and navigation information and licenses them to developers.

Micello has mapped venues including malls, hospitals and schools, Agarwal said. Some of its ideas for how to use indoor maps came from watching shoppers using static maps at the entrances to malls, he said. They often touch items all over the map, trying to figure out the distances and best route between the different stores they want to visit. An interactive map, on a networked device such as a phone, could capture all those taps and better understand the shopper's intentions, he said. What's at stake for retailers is a purchase decision.

"Ultimately, the map becomes a way to influence that decision, and that's, I think, the ultimate reason why we want to build all the maps and own all the map data," Agarwal said. Indoor location data could help retailers offer shoppers promotions, products and information at the right time and place, he said.

Taken a step further, location data might allow a service to recommend a route around the mall that takes into consideration where the shopper's friends are, he said.

Bluetooth beacons

Nokia has tried to push the technology forward with an implementation that is now in trials in at least one store. Beacons throughout a store that use a new feature in the Bluetooth 4 standard can send signals to mobile devices with Bluetooth 4 and identify a user's location to within 10 centimeters, said Marc Kleinmaier, who handles business development for Nokia in the Western U.S. With that level of precision, a vendor could present the mobile user with a promotion on a specific product when it is right in front of the user, Kleinmaier said.

The offer could be targeted to shoppers based on past purchases or other factors, he said. When the customer reached the checkout stand, the discount could be applied automatically.

Aisle411 already offers an indoor navigation app for iPhone and Android that helps users locate items on the shelves of some stores. The company is in discussions with large and small retailers that want to deploy indoor navigation networks using technologies such as Bluetooth beacons, said George Arabian, vice president of business development.

Indoor location would be most useful as part of a larger search and navigation system, helping users find their way to an address and then through a store to find a product or across a convention center to find someone they want to meet, said Brian Salisbury, director of business development at TeleCommunication Systems, which makes a variety of location and telematics products.

Some speakers at the conference were optimistic about indoor location's potential. One was Bryan Trussel, CEO of Glympse, which lets mobile users share their real-time location with specific people for a defined period of time.

"In 18 months, I think that's going to be pretty commonplace," Trussel said of indoor navigation. "I think it'll be huge." Glympse envisions consumers using indoor location to find each other in malls or convention centers.

Three possibilities

The three main business cases for indoor location will be promotion, recreation or gaming, and emergency response, or a "personal OnStar" system on phones instead of cars, said Kanwar Chadha, chief marketing officer of location silicon vendor CSR.

However, the technology will need to overcome some hurdles before it's widely adopted. For one thing, indoor systems that rely on beacons carry a high cost. "To deploy, operate and manage beacons economically ... will be tough," said David Allen, chief technology officer of Locaid.

Location-based social networking company FourSquare thinks indoor location mechanisms could help it identify a user's position more precisely, leading to better recommendations to other FourSquare users in public buildings such as malls and airports. But like some other mobile app developers, it needs the technology to go mainstream first.

"As long as it's not broadly available on all platforms, it's probably not something that we can use," said Holger Luedorf, vice president and head of business development at FourSquare.

The technology is still too fragmented to be easily used across all venues, though it can be implemented consistently across one company, Micello's Agarwal said. He expects indoor location capabilities eventually to be implemented at the chip level, a process he said CSR has begun with its SiRFusion Location Platform. On Wednesday, Broadcom also announced a location chip designed for both indoor and outdoor operation, with the ability to use inputs from a wide range of sensors including inertial sensors, Bluetooth beacons and near-field communications systems. But Agarwal cautioned that it will take as much as 24 months for new location chips to proliferate through new devices in consumers' hands.

Though the technology isn't quite ready yet, indoor positioning shouldn't be dismissed, Skyhook's Brachet said.

"We forget in this industry that four years ago, LBS was really just turn-by-turn navigation and find-my-kids through cell-tower location," Brachet said. "Since then, there's been an explosion of the market ... and I think we'll see the same thing with indoor positioning."

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is

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