Indoor Positioning Seems to Have Come of Age

Published on Monday August 12th, 2013

By V. Haricharan at xcubelabs

Startups have this theory—The First Mover Advantage—it is the advantage gained by the initial significant occupant of a market segment. Sometimes first movers have huge profit margins and a monopoly, case in point, Twitter and Foursquare. Other times, the first mover is unable to capitalize on the advantage, for example, look at what happened with Indoor Positioning Systems. Most web and social apps are dominated by one or two early players due to the First Mover Advantage. With Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS), however, these startups squandered away their golden opportunity, thus, leaving no clear leader and a cat fight out there.

Indoor Positioning Systems have been an area of interest for more than two decades now. But it is only recently that some major breakthroughs have happened to possibly accelerate the availability of such technology to the masses. Analysts predict that by 2017, the Indoor Location Market will reach revenues exceeding $5 billion in total and will represent over 200,000 installations of infrastructure equipment, including WiFi hotspots, Bluetooth antenna and over 800 million branded application downloads. Those are big numbers.

Apple’s acquisition of WiFiSLAM, an indoor positioning startup that can locate smartphone users within buildings using only ambient WiFi signals—for more than 20 million dollars—has set the cat among the pigeons. Organizations such as sensewhere, Navizon, Guardly, Aisle 411, Qubulus are now wary of Apple’s move to drive them out of business. Apple’s introduction of iBeacon in WWDC 2013 (you can read our earlier articles covering the WWDC here) has just confirmed their fears—however, Apple hasn’t launched/announced anything major—but you can be sure that the giant is tiptoing in this direction.

Google has been making inroads into the Indoor Positioning Market since 2011. Already, it has been collaboratively making maps of malls.

Google does not have any major patents or acquisitions to boast of. The patents that it has are mostly related to the collection of WiFi Data to approximate phone location while another looks at methods to identify location based on your location-based search history and possibly social posts. But, Google is known to fund projects generously. Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility is not to be underestimated. A major portion of Motorola’s indoor positioning portfolio was vetted quite comprehensively by Google before acquisition. Frankly, Motorola was way ahead of the times, filing 6 patents on Bluetooth-based indoor positioning as well as positioning derived from radio signals and light modulation. More importantly, Motorola patents deal with “inertial navigation”—motion tracking that utilizes sensors to measure movement from a known location. In layman terms, it is a kind of geofencing. What if Google can/will simply geofence a location and if you were to cross the boundary of the fencing, it would receive information about your device? This sort of technology was not present at the time of filing, so Google was thinking way ahead of its time.

Leaked Patent Report suggests that Apple has plans for an advanced indoor mobile location application for finding a vehicle in a parking structure. Putting one and one together—the iOS in the car feature unveiled at the WWDC 2013—it seems to be an awesome tag team. Another patent report states that it will enable iOS users to navigate virtually in a location with panoramic imagery. Perhaps even select objects and buy them? What is this if not bringing eCommerce to life?

So where does Indoor Positioning Systems take us? They take us one step closer to penetrating the end users’ sphere of privacy.

Here are some really interesting use cases that can happen with Indoor Positioning Systems.

If you were an organization maintaining an airport, mall, convention center, college, manufacturing plant, here’s how it will help you if you have your own app. The app will autodetect the user’s presence inside the mall using geofencing technology. Using IPS the app knows exactly on which floor you are located. The app sends the user information about the stores on the floor, their offers, the location of rest rooms and a general map that lets them see their exact location.

Imagine going one step further—what if you could integrate proximity based social networking? What if you could find out which of your Facebook/Twitter friends are in the mall at this instant and their location? Advertisers and retail outlets will simply leap at this opportunity because of the additional sales and the peer pressure to shop at certain “posh” retail outlets. Apple might soon become the mayor of the Location Based Social Networking, throwing FourSquare out of the window, if it gets this right.

Malls are transforming themselves into places for young people to meet and hangout. It is also a pretty good place for a first date. If you could let guys and girls coming to your mall use it as a nice place to meet-and-greet and to get to know each other, folks could ping/look up people with interesting profiles in locations within the mall, that are nearby and let them know they are interested. young couples could blow virtual kisses, offer drinks, wink. retailers can offer a whole lot of add on services. You only need to bring in the platform—the retailers are intelligent enough to figure out the other possibilities. The app can inform its users if a coffee shop is full and redirect them to other interesting places within the location.

Within the airport, based on ticket information, the app will be able to redirect you to the correct lounge and also inform you about the various options for eating and entertainment, all the while keeping track of the time being spent so that you are not late for your flight.

Step by Step Indoor navigation, Product Level Retail customer engagement, Proximity based social networking, among other services, will become part of our everyday lives. Yes, I do get that a lot of it is a gross violation of privacy, but what if it were to become reality?

Geospatial awareness is the next big thing. You pull out your phone when you are in the produce section of Krogers and it “pushes” to your device that there is an offer on the avocados. If you were in the cosmetics section or were walking towards it the organization could send in a couple of assistants who will help you choose your final product. There are endless possibilities for marketing, in-store-coupons, and testing the effectiveness of offers among other marketing methods.

This will also put an end to the heat map analysis that many organizations are using in order to identify which racks are being visited by customers the most and which the least. It will also help the store decide whether it wants to keep its fastest moving goods in one place or to arrange it by their respective departments. For example, if eggs and cheese are almost “always” be bought together and your customers are almost always going to the cheese section after putting eggs into their basket—using their device’s unique signature—it obviously makes sense to keep the two together. Organizations can make such seemingly simple, but dicey decisions, based on real hard data that they cannot obtain on their own, but from their customers.

Families can quickly tag themselves and go off to do their own shopping and agree to meet later at a particular rendezvous point. Families can track the whereabouts of their loved ones quickly and efficiently.

Here’s another way to look at shopping. What if you filled out a grocery list before you stepped into the store and using the store’s indoor positioning system, it guided you to the exact places where the goods are—without having to look through racks of ingredients or getting lost in the aisles.

Airport systems can decide to store your phone’s unique signature so that they can locate you in case of an emergency such as an emergency landing or a fire. Organizations can use this sort of technology to track users entering and leaving certain secure areas such as server rooms and to track occupancy during emergency events ensuring that no one is left behind.

Hospitals can use this app to track their doctors and nurses, as well as to find out which floor and OR they are currently working in. No more annoying announcements over Intercom, “Dr. Smith, you are requested in the emergency room.” This helps improve workflow management and clinician satisfaction. Also, it could help identify patient flow time, wait time, resource utilization, variances from registration to surgery to recovery and more. This information, of course, will be protected and protocol compliant, but that’s just a layer on top of the data.

Persons of interest can now be traced without having to evacuate the entire building or alert the entire crowd. Security agencies can set up geofencing blocks along the perimeter of visit of a VIP and monitor closely without having to get too close to the person or invade his/her privacy. Secret Service can probably let the President have a few intimate moments with the phone in his pocket.

Indoor location is a disruptor and it is about to transform your retail experience. We may even expect a reverse trend of people buying more from brick and mortar stores than online. Indoor location will now give us the real e-commerce experience—real world, —real time. Of course, there are privacy issues. Some retailers are breaching privacy shields under the garb of marketing and analytics. End users are worried about actual physical tracking or possible misuse of such information for stalking and other illegal purposes. With PRISM’s exposure, NSA has also not made it easy for organizations to expect users to place implicit trust in them. Privacy is going to a long-drawn out battle, except this time, it will not be fought by EFF’s and WikiLeaks of the world, but by people themselves.

Nevertheless, these technologies are going to forever impact the way we live, travel and interact with systems around us. But, the interesting point, here, is that there is no clear leader yet. This is a race that is yet to be won.

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