Indoor Positioning and Navigation – The Next LBS Frontier?

August 23, 2010

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We frequently hear and read about navigation and positioning along the highways and byways, but what about “indoor positioning”? In areas where GPS doesn’t work - inside a building, like a mall - what can you use to find your way? How might someone find you if disaster strikes and you are trapped? Tristian Lacroix, the vice president of business development for, provides an update on the technologies and applications that have bubbled to the top after years of research and trials.

Directions Magazine(DM): Let’s start with some basic context for indoor LBS, as not many people are familiar with how indoor positioning works. Can you tell us more about the current technologies in use that support indoor positioning?

Tristian Lacroix (TL): Going back to five or 10 years ago, the industry realized that GPS had limitations, such as, it did not work indoors (that is, GPS location fix was slow or impossible and was inaccurate). E911 policies dictated that mobile operators must locate a person’s cell phone to some degree of accuracy. These operators were among the first to experience this problem.

GPS evolved into A-GPS, or “Assisted GPS,” which used the device’s GPS chip and cellular network (CellID).   However, A-GPS was not available for commercial LBS services due to the cost of the operator’s network. As a result, Wi-Fi geolocation became an alternative technology.

Wi-Fi location enables 20m accuracy where Wi-Fi access points exist. However, as we are seeing with “check-ins,” Wi-Fi location is not accurate enough to indicate that the user physically checks-in to a venue.

Bluetooth is the micro-level technology that is being deployed inside malls, etc., so phones that are enabled with Bluetooth can leverage the services.

 Radio-frequency identification(RFID) is promising, but most phones don’t have RFID chips/tags in them.

GPS --> WiFi --> Bluetooth --> RFID - the device needs to be close to a Wi-Fi access point or Bluetooth node.

Sensors in the device!  Gyros, compasses, accelerometers, etc., can be used to provide “assistance” data to navigation and tracking.

DM: Local Positioning Systems-LBS Applications and Services was published in 2006. In it the authors mentioned several companies working on different indoor technologies including Rosum, Ekahau, Skyhook, etc. Which company and technology has emerged as the one most likely to be used most frequently, now and within the next five years?

TL: Skyhook and Navizon emerged as Wi-Fi location leaders. As the next step, they are integrating themselves into broader location technologies/services, meaning, integrating with GPS chip makers, or original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like Apple (Skyhook is embedded in the iPhone), and mobile carriers (starting to see the benefit of faster Time to First Fix (TTFF)) with Wi-Fi location. So with standalone GPS, TIFF can be longer than one minute. With A-GPS, the TIFF has come down to about 12 seconds, but with Wi-Fi, the TTFF is two seconds!  So with the iPhone, 70% of location fixes are done using Wi-Fi location and not GPS.  

Ekahau has emerged with indoor asset (i.e. hospital equipment, or workforce personal) tracking.

Rosum was founded by the same people who architected GPS, knew that GPS did not work indoors and wanted to find an alternative, which is using TV towers. Over the past few years, Rosum has been working on producing a chip small enough to fit into devices. The chip is still too big for cell phones; however, Rosum is embedding its TV chip into laptops.

DM: Regardless of the technology, what applications do you see as having the most promise and the best possibility for wide adoption?

TL:Public Safety/Emergency Response: Everybody wants to be located precisely during an emergency, down to the building and even room or floor level.

Mobile shopping, m-commerce, personalized advertising/coupons, etc.: Users want to be directed to the store or product. People don’t have time for window shopping anymore. They want to find deals and go get them.

Even with check-ins, the brands/stores/advertisers will want to know that you are actually inside their store, not at your house two blocks away, when you check-in.

What we should be talking about is the evolution of such indoor LBS. So what if we can identify where you are? We can sell you things. What users want is smart-gen solutions based upon their behavior, for all aspects of their lives. Like a virtual personal assistant, to do the activities or help them complete tasks that are redundant and or time-consuming.  These are the solutions/applications that take the next step forward in LBS, and will rule the market.

DM: Indoor navigation coupled with location-based advertising is an application that has long been thought to hold promise. What’s the current market condition for this application, what company is out front and what do you see for widespread use by consumers?

TL: There are several companies that already do indoor maps and routing/directions inside malls/airports. Again, people want to use these indoor nav apps for finding their store/product/service inside a mall faster, just like they look for a point of interest (POI) in the outside world. They also want to be able to get to a POI that is a specific store inside a mall/airport. Until recently, users were just getting a POI on top of a mall, but now they can see where that POI is inside the space.

In our latest market report, version three of “State of Play,” IndoorLBS addresses this exact question. How does location-based advertising work, how much revenue can be generated and are there live examples?

DM:  Applications like augmented reality (AR) are intriguing but most apps now are for tourism. How do you see location-based AR being used for indoor apps?

TL: AR inside malls could apply to games or rewards (user looks into the phone screen pointing at a store to see what rewards pop up).

DM:  We’re most curious about RFID for indoor “active” positioning as opposed to today’s passive systems. What’s on the horizon for RFID and do you see equipment or algorithms with the potential for making the hand-off between indoor and outdoor positioning systems (RFID to GPS, for example)?

TL: Nowadays, a great number of technologies are being used for outdoor and indoor localization, such as GPS, RFID, Wi-Fi and ultra-wide bandor UWB-based systems. However, all of them require the utilization of their own API with their own protocols. This can seriously hinder efforts to develop heterogeneous scenarios where different localization systems have to be used for a location service seamless hand-off.   Solutions exist today that make use of standard protocols for heterogeneous localization in seamless hand-off scenarios achieved by using the real-time transport /real-time transport control(RTP/RTCP) protocol that hides underlying technologies for localization. Commercial systems exist that use active RFID real-time locating system (RTLS) with the option to add GPS technology, enabling, for example, the ability to track every container even in the most challenging environments, such as indoors.

For indoor-outdoor tracking, there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” technology; it takes a combination of technologies to tackle the typical use case. Solutions exist that integrate two complementary tracking technologies that leverage robust middleware and application software and provide a more complete hybrid solution that offers higher overall location system coverage and availability.

These solutions transfer GPS, RTLS and telemetry data over a Wi-Fi link that is part of a network of locating access points. For sites without Wi-Fi coverage, the system utilizes either narrowband modems or the ISO 24730 RTLS channel for communication back to the server. In interference-heavy environments, this design offers terminal operators the flexibility of deploying the best radio frequency (RF) solution for the site.


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