Each year indoor positioning has created more buzz in the location-based services arena. Acquisitions and new developments suggest 2013 might be a breakthrough year for the technology. Executive Editor Adena Schutzberg shares the basics on how it works and where it might be headed.
1. GPS does not work well indoors
While today’s more sensitive GPS chips can sometimes get a fix (receive signals from enough satellites to determine a location) inside a building, the resulting location is typically not accurate enough to be useful. The signals from the satellites are attenuated and scattered by roofs, walls and other objects. Besides, the error range of many GPS chips (tennis court) can be larger than the indoor space itself (small grocery store)!
Locata, an Australian company, offers beacons that send out signals that cover large areas and can penetrate walls. Locata receivers work similarly to how GPS receivers work. The U.S. Department of Defense is an early Locata user.Nokia uses beacons that send out Bluetooth signals. While any Bluetooth device can read them, they only cover a few square meters. Nokia last year set up the In-Location Alliance with 22 companies to further develop a Bluetooth locating solution (press release).Many companies tap into Wi-Fi signals that are all around us - including when we are indoors. With a good map of the locations of the access points, a Wi-Fi receiver like a cell phone can be located even indoors (Wikipedia). Google, Navizon and Skyhook are among the leaders in this area.
ByteLight sends flickering light patterns from its LED light fixtures. The receiver (a camera on a phone) reads the code and sends it to a server. On the server the code is compared to those a map. A match means the receiver is under a specific “light.”IndoorAtlas, a start-up based in Finland, surveys buildings for their internal magnetic map. The fields vary within the structure, providing different fingerprints for different locations. A cell phone’s internal digital compass can be used to detect the field and, much like ByteLight’s procedure, compared to the map for location determination (Economist coverage).
Passive radio frequency identification tags (RFIDs) prompt a transaction when they pass near a sensor. For example, a closed door prompts the user to swipe the card to pass. Doors or gates force users into a queue or to slow down for the sensor to work properly. These passive systems detail only that a person or object entered a room; they do not provide detailed location information within the room.Active RFID tags are self-powered and regularly send out signals to receivers within the area of interest. This is the reverse of GPS. Knowing the location of the receiving sensors allows for accurate indoor locating in near real-time.Solutions that use inertial measurement work only if a starting location is know. With that information collected, these sensors use accelerometers, gyroscopes and other sensors including clocks to track orientation and distance to keep track of location in near real-time. The latest inertial solution, from DARPA, is a chip smaller than a penny (press release).
While indoor positioning systems can determine location, many need additional information to determine which way a person or object is facing. That can make providing directions or pitching a product in a store more challenging.The addition of an electronic compass to a receiver (many cell phones now have them), or a microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) orientation sensor or a prompt to turn toward a particular direction (to scan a bar code or QR code on a poster, for example) can provide more information regarding orientation.
No single solution works perfectly in all environments. For that reason devices may support more than one positioning solution and switch between them as needed. Today’s mobile phones use GPS (when it’s turned on) outdoors but may switch to Wi-FI positioning (when it’s turned on) when the signal is weak, such as when an individual goes indoors. Indoor location and commerce solution provider aisle411 taps into both Wi-Fi and MEMS sensors for its retail store offerings.
While the goal of indoor positioning for some users, notably hospitals and malls, is to provide navigation aid, others want to use indoor positioning to better market to customers, provide just-in-time information via audio for tours, offer video or augmented reality experiences or connect people of interest in proximity to one another. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission hopes to use indoor positioning to provide timelier and more effective emergency services (see below).
Apple, Google and Microsoft are all exploring the use of indoor positioning. At this time the effort is focusing on both indoor positioning technologies and creating the basemaps that will make such solutions more valuable.Google has its own Android positioning system based on Wi-Fi (APB coverage). When some Android developers (Samsung, Motorola) tried to use Skyhook’s solution in place of Google’s, Google sued. That case will be in court, along with a few others, in 2014 (FOSS Patents coverage). Microsoft uses Wi-Fi for indoor positioning, as well, and has some research going on regarding the use of signal strength for location determination. Apple recently acquired WifiSLAM (APB coverage) to get into the indoor location game.
Results of a study conducted in late 2012 and published March 14, 2013 by the FCC’s Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) suggests a current baseline for indoor positioning for use in emergency response. Three different vendors, using three different indoor technologies, participated (summary).One key concern is determining vertical location, that is, on which floor a person is standing in a multilevel building. The FCC report concludes: “While the location positioning platforms tested provided a relatively high level of yield, as well as improved accuracy performance, the results clearly indicate additional development is required.”
Locating a person or device indoors is only half of the solution. For the location to be meaningful for navigation or other purposes, service providers need accurate indoor maps. There’s a new industry creating those data. Micello recently announced it had mapped 15,000 indoor venues (press release). Google, in addition to collecting its own indoor mapping data (APB coverage), is crowdsourcing maps from its proprietors (APB coverage). Nokia (APB coverage) is collecting indoor data and even OpenStreetMap has a wiki page about indoor maps.