Monday, May 14, 2012

Indoors Geo-location, the Next Frontier?

Google recently announced Indoor Walking Directions, a logical progression of outdoors maps, not to mention multiple transport modes (walking, biking, public, car). This was originally announced last November, but looks like it is finally released into the wild.

Similarly Nokia Research has been collaborating on indoor location research with MIT and has several patents on the subject. In response to Google's initiative, Nokia let out some teasers on hyper-accurate positioning using Bluetooth beacons.

My last example is research going on at Microsoft, which has significantly revamped its mobile business and has perhaps the most refreshing mobile UI in Windows Phone 7.

Why is this so important?

For starters, we spend a lot of time indoors, this is especially true in extreme climates (cold or hot!), where one may never leave a climate controlled environment. One can drive to the office, park in the garage, go to lunch or shopping at malls via interconnected tunnels and generally not know if it is -10C or +40C outside. While in the elevator you get to see bits of news and weather (and ads) and may see a couple more ads while you glance at your phone.

In this immersive mobile environment it is not surprising that hyper-local search is becoming the real battleground. Surely Facebook's recent comments in their amended S-1 filing about the risk of mobile monetization were made after some serious soul searching. In fact Facebook has always shown ambivalence to the iPad and whether it is mobile or not. Still, with developers like Joe Hewitt on staff Facebook has the depth to create truly reference designs. The Facebook Mobile app is still a joy to use.

Even gaming, which keeps showing more and more interesting social angles, benefits from hyper-accurate location. What is the point of having a 3-axis gyro in your pocket if one cannot interact accurately with strangers? Though Bump is cool and uses a clever server side bump detection, this too will be accomplished with a more direct mechanism.

Thus the need to connect every conceivable sensor to the task of creating hyper-accurate location and then monetizing it.

Where is the Money?

I think we are past "check-in" and "getting coupons pushed while walking". Sounds good, but location has to be about solving simple, practical problems. Such as finding a good plumber in a hurry, finding a shop in a huge mall without having to first find the shop listing, or even to pay for something that Mom or Dad have authorized. Throw in the social aspect (what do my friends think?) and brand tie-in (I get 10% off at Cheesecake Factory for shopping at Nordstrom) and it becomes a recipe for creating yet another walled garden!

Even enterprises with mobile workers would want hyper-accurate location to simplify many tasks that are done in near real-time. GAP floor staff with walkie-talkie headphones is just not fashion forward. Of course Fedex, UPS and countless other companies with dispersed staff would be happy to simply have a picture of who is where.

So the money is really in the transactional value as well as improved efficiency. Will advertising be significant in this? Most likely, but more in the Minority Report sense than in looking at tiny ads at the bottom of a mobile screen. Pulling into a parking lot or gas station and seeing personalized messages is really not a complex task. It does require near perfect triangulation, however.

When will this happen?

The basic sensor ingredients are coming together in a way that would truly create magical ways to interact with your surroundings. Perhaps a combination of NFC, Bluetooth beacons and audio and optical sensing will create the hyper-accurate location that will indeed make these scenarios possible.

Nothing would be complete without some thoughts on how such maps and content will come into existence. We certainly cannot use satellites nor Google cars or trykes, so in this instance it will be user-generated content that will make such a system valuable. Whether it is the mall entering their building maps into the map system du jour or Trusted Photographers uploading shop pictures, it will be a community effort.

Perhaps time to think of open mapping systems this time around.


  1. an interesting company already deploying this technology in located outside Boston

  2. I just finished a 163-page report on this technology area, covering research by all the major mobile companies and chip makers and over 30 start-ups. One of the newest and most-growing areas is tracking motion using sensors built-in to startphones.

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