Bringing Maps Indoors … No Hardware Required

Despite the fact that I have spent a chunk of my career and blog real estate talking about beacons, I have recently noticed a trend that may render the little devices obsolete for one of their most useful use-cases — indoor mapping. This is excellent news for cost sensitive retailers hoping to take advantage of indoor location technology (one large retailer once expressed concern: “by the time we’ve completely outfitted every one of our thousands of stores with a mesh of beacons, at considerable cost, the hardware will be obsolete”).

Before I accidentally undermine a tonne of active beacon projects worldwide, I would like to make the point that there are still plenty of reasons to use beacons in store. New indoor mapping technologies based on subtle variations in sensor information merely reduce the need to deploy as many, and the technologies can be combined for increased accuracy. Beacons additionally have some features that are not necessarily available with indoor mapping — the most notable being the ability to passively provide location based notifications without an open application.


The Future of Indoor Location?

It started, for me, about six months ago at the Plug ’n’ Play Retail & Fintech Showcase event. One of the presenters, a company called Indoor Atlas, demonstrated their hardware-free solution for mapping indoor spaces based on what they described as small variations in magnetic fields from location to location.

Apparently the startup has actually been active for quite some time, and they have reached a level of maturity where you can download their app and map out your own space. Using a floor plan, you teach the app about the different sensor variations as you walk around your location, as shown below.

Paths can be painted with your finger. You then walk along the painted path to teach the application about the different sensor values along your route. Once the app has enough information you can see the familiar blue dot indicator follow you as you walk around.

Now it appears as if Apple are getting in on the game. Apple have long had Indoor Positioning squirreled away in their SDK — from what I can tell this uses proven technologies such as GPS and Wifi, then transforms those co-ordinates to a floorplan. Earlier this week, however, they quietly released an Indoor Survey tool which seems to operate on a very similar principle to Indoor Atlas (whether they have done this by licensing the technology or developing something similar remains to be discovered).

Apple’s Indoor Survey tool on the App Store, via Mashable. The application is not widely available yet so we are yet to peek inside at what might lie beyond the login screen.

You can see this technology in action at Mumbai Airport, an early adopter of this technology. They have mapped out the airport terminal to help customers find their way to their gate using a combination of beacons and Indoor Atlas.

If you would like to experiment, the Indoor Atlas application is available right now¹. I have started mapping out Accenture’s Technology Labs in our downtown San Jose office and will report back with my findings. If anyone else has tried to map their office or store I would love to hear how it has gone, where it falls down and where it works well.


Footnotes

#1: I love it when vendors are confident enough to release their tools into the wild like this — it generally bodes well for the technology and allows us to experiment and talk openly about the technology without having to frustrate ourselves talking to legions of sales people. This may just be me, but I find it very difficult to recommend a technical solution to a client on the strength of nothing more than a brochure and a staged demo.