Indoor Mapping Is Set to Revolutionize How Consumers Navigate Stores

Smartphones Can Get You to Your Destination, But Indoor Mapping Apps Can Help You Find What You Need

Smartphones Can Get You to Your Destination, But Indoor Mapping Apps Can Help You Find What You Need

By Blake Jessop

NEW YORK, NY — Indoor mapping apps will drastically change how consumers shop, and how retailers market to consumers. Modern smartphone users are better equipped to navigate the urban landscape than the most talented map-readers of decades past. As mobile technologies leap forward in ever-shortening generations, consumers’ expectations are growing with them. “Why,” they ask, “should our ability to navigate space suddenly stop when finding a retailer’s front door?”

This question is the focus of a rapidly advancing wave of indoor mapping technology. A simple web search leads consumers to a dizzying array of goods and services. With GPS apps to guide them through the urban sprawl, finding store locations is as easy as tracking the iPhone’s ubiquitous little red pin. Until recently, the accuracy of these apps did not extend indoors—smartphones can lead you to the supermarket, but they can’t help you find the eggs. A frenetic burst of industry interest and technological innovation is set to change that. Web search giants, mobile phone manufacturers, and software developers are competing and collaborating to make accurate indoor mapping—and all the convenience and advertising advantages that follow from it—a thing of the present.

The potential upsides of indoor mapping gives good reason for the recent boom in interest. Making store locations easier to navigate presents obvious benefits for both shoppers and retailers, saving everyone time, improving customers’ experiences, and streamlining sales. The potential of indoor mapping doesn’t stop there and the multimedia capabilities of modern smartphones offer retailers unparalleled access to consumers inside their space. In-store specials, customer loyalty benefits, advertising new products, and surveying purchasing habits are all within the orbit of apps designed to guide consumers through indoor retail spaces. As the technology’s tremendous potential has caught the eye of innovators, companies from across the mobile industry have been working to overcome the difficulties inherent in moving smartphone maps indoors.

The New Cartographers

Digital cartography presented huge challenges to its early implementers. The world is a big place, and the process of mapping and making it available online was a problem only large companies, such as MapQuest and Google, could tackle. Indoor mapping is a completely different ballgame. Retail spaces are small by definition, and accurate interior maps almost always already exist in the form of plans and architectural drawings. Because they are privately run and managed, retail spaces also resist mapping by large companies, which would need to acquire accurate maps but might not be unable to update the locations of products within the store.

There are almost as many approaches to indoor digital cartography as there are companies trying to tackle the problem. Some seek out developers or management companies for accurate architectural layouts. Most malls and airports, two examples of commercial spaces that would most benefit from easy point-to-point navigation, already post maps online, an obvious source for digital cartographers. Others developers encourage retailers to produce, upload, and update their own maps, and strive to equip them to do so.

The process of turning these maps into standardized, clickable diagrams is labor intensive. Micello, an early proponent of indoor mapping, has digitized thousands of locations, usually for use in an app designed by the customer. “It seems like every big store, university, business campus, and hospital group is working on a mobile app, and a map is going to be a standard part of that,” says Micello founder Ankit Agarwal.

The scope of indoor mapping has expanded with the entrance of major players into the market. Google is actively working to move its indoor maps, and is not shy about how far they want the technology to go. “We’re just getting started,” says Steve Lee, a director of product management at Google. “Our eventual goal is for any user of Google Maps to be able to go into any public space and be able to find their way around.”

The ambitious scale of Google’s approach has led to constructive partnerships with smaller players who have been working in the field for years. Big companies such as Bing and Google often tap into work already done by startups such as Point Inside, which successfully license their maps to other companies. “I can confirm that we have formal relationships with large mapping players, whether they’re content providers or mapping companies,” Josh Marti of Point Inside says. “We just don’t name who they are.”

The interaction of major players such as Bing and Google with smaller startups is one of the most fluid aspects of the growing indoor mapping trend. Google AdWords, which biases search results to the highest bidder, is a search industry benchmark. Point Inside, by contrast, gives individual retailers the chance to develop and customize their indoor map presentation. Although Google has yet to tip its hand about exactly how their indoor mapping service will interact with businesses, many companies see validity in the more personalized approach, perhaps fearing the possibility of their retail space being turned into an advertising marketplace that they would need to buy back into. Ericsson Labs, another major developer, is marketing a complete DiY indoor mapping kit, hoping to encourage businesses to do their own cartography.

The Great Leap Inward

The technology behind indoor mapping is advancing quickly, though a host of difficulties remain to be overcome. As developers large and small tackle these challenges, they constantly redefine what is possible in the field, and reset their horizons to encompass more and more ambitious territory.

Current indoor navigation apps vary widely in their capabilities. The abilities of a theoretical dream app, capable of doing everything from guide you point-to-point inside a store, track purchases, offer coupons and even make use of augmented reality, remain broken up among individual apps. Google Maps can track the location of the nearest washroom or find your gate at an airport. Micello is a leader in point-to-point wayfinding. Cruising special offers and direct advertising is usually the domain of big retailers like Meijer, a Point Inside client, which uses a proprietary apps to show store layouts, point out specials, and even help you remember where you parked your car.

Integration of disparate data sets is one of the grand challenges of the indoor mapping revolution. Physical navigation is one thing, but product location updates are something else entirely. Is it better to navigate to the plumbing section of a Home Depot, or search for a particular product, check availability, and then waypoint that item specifically? The demand for indoor mapping extends far beyond traditional retail spaces. University students are potential clients for an app that helps them navigate from class to class. As the technology moves forward, it will be interesting to see how the major players combine user interface with a vast sea of data to minimize the work consumers do as they switch from navigating the mall to getting around inside a store.

Actually moving consumers from point A to point B can be a challenge in itself. GPS requires satellite line of sight, and doesn’t work well indoors. Cartography is tough, but figuring out where a consumer is on the map is even tougher. Early attempts saw startups such as Skyhook hire staff to create databases of WiFi locations and cellular signals, after which triangulation could mark a location to within 30 feet. Telecom giant Nokia is working on an initiative that would create a new Location Extension protocol to ride on top of Bluetooth 4.0. Issued as a standard by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, the technology could allow users to pinpoint their location with an accuracy measured in inches rather than feet.

Hybrid solutions are also possible, CRS uses a smartphones’ internal accelerometers, magnetometers, cameras, and WiFi capability to track movement precisely. The specter of integration rears its ugly head again in this area—Android phones allow WiFi scanning, while iPhone developers are not allowed to perform WiFi signal scans. Progress may not require a single solution, but widespread adoption could be slowed as a large variety of platforms, services, and apps all compete for consumers.

Charting the Future

The indoor navigation field is wide open. A variety of players, big and small, are competing for app space on consumers’ smartphones. Early innovators such as Micello seek to network with recent big entries into the market such as Bing and Google, all the while striving to maintain their original vision. The potential applications of indoor mapping are incredibly diverse. Apart from tantalizing advertising and branding possibilities, universities could allow students to chart classrooms, and hospitals could streamline the movement of patients.

Does Location-based Mobile Advertising Really Work?As smartphone apps simplify the process of finding and purchasing products, retailers will be able to target consumers with increasingly personalized advertising and service. With access to consumers’ habits, preferences, and even their typical paths through retail space, businesses will use indoor navigation to optimize their own and its customers’ experience. As indoor navigation matures, consumers can expect to travel in a world where, with ever increasing accuracy, the map really is the terrain.

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1 Comment

  1. J.R. January 8, 2016 Reply

    This is a pretty insightful article. Thanks for posting this! Lots of good information here.

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