Navigating museums, airports and railway stations or finding shops, ATMs and even your car in shopping centres will soon be as simple as firing up an app as GPS moves indoors.
Google has thrown its weight behind indoor navigation and says the technology is reaching the tipping point, while Australian firms have developed competing technology that they say could roll out in shopping centres like Westfield and QIC within six months. Australian researchers are also using it to try to give independence back to the blind or visually impaired.
The technology is sometimes called “indoor GPS” but it does not use satellite navigation as this doesn't work indoors and struggles even in urban environments where large buildings block the signal.
Instead of satellites, Wi-Fi has become the standard for companies such as Google to locate the user within five to 10 metres through Wi-Fi access points. Researchers at universities including the University of NSW have tapped other sensors on the phone such as the gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer to bring the accuracy down to within three metres.
Google has launched indoor maps in eight countries – the United States, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Britain, France, Denmark and Sweden – and has more than 10,000 floor plans mapped including airports, shopping centres, hotels, universities and libraries (see videos).
Google software engineer Waleed Kadous, an Australian who studied at UNSW, leads Google's indoor mapping effort from California.
He told an indoor mapping conference at the University of NSW this week that the technology was approaching the tipping point of mainstream adoption.
“Are we right where we were with the web in 1997? I think we have some problems we need to address but we might very well be because in my view there's no fundamental technical obstacle now,” Kadous said.
Google has already covered large airports like Atlanta, Chicago and Narita, the entire Las Vegas strip, the Mall of America, Ikea and Macy's stores and the giant Shibuya and Shinjuku railway stations in Tokyo.
Business owners – or anyone – in Google's launch countries can upload their own floor plans and add detail to the map and customers can search for specific types of shops or products and be directed there.
Kadous showed off an example of an application that is still in development at Google that allows people to see where their friends are in the mall and easily meet them without communicating. The technology can also make Google searches more context aware such as by delivering the correct results when you search “painting” while in a hardware store.
“For all of the nice things we've done so far I still see some major flaws and there's still a lot of areas for additional work,” said Kadous, adding that one of the major problems was filling out all the “metadata” on the maps.
“My goal is people should expect and have high quality indoor location [maps] in venues the same way that they expect a business to have a website.”
Google would not say when indoor maps would launch in Australia but there are already a number of Australian firms competing in the same space.
Australian firm Abuzz already has just under 400 interactive wayfinding kiosks in 50 of Australia's largest shopping malls as well as Sydney Airport and hospitals and museums in Sydney and Melbourne.
The company is adopting indoor navigation to bring the functionality of the kiosks to smartphones, which mobile product manager Paul Pettersen said was a logical next step. It has already conducted trials at QIC Castle Towers in Sydney in May and is now in talks with Westfield and QIC about a broader rollout via the shopping centres' own apps.
“The intention is that in a large built environment – and typically we're talking about a shopping centre but it equally works for a hospital or an airport – anything that's identifiable as a destination we can help you find it from where you are now,” said Pettersen.
“Whether it's a disabled toilet, a Westpac ATM or a store that is selling Xboxes.”
With the Abuzz app – which will be tailored for each shopping centre – when users park their car they can register it using the app with one button push and can easily then navigate back to their car when they've finished shopping. The app could also offer location-based deals from nearby stores.
While Google is trying to map the world, Abuzz is focused on mapping 80 shopping centres in Australia in high detail, which Pettersen says will mean it can be rolled out to customers within six months to a year and “we're not going to direct you to a store that closed two months ago”. It will even support keyword searches for those who want to find specific products.
UNSW is working on indoor maps applications for the blind and visually impaired, allowing them to more easily get around chaotic settings like airports without assistance. It has already developed the technology including a user interface that supports Braille and will be conducting trials by the end of this year or early next year.
“GPS has already completely revolutionised their lives because it's giving them a lot more independence and they're a lot more confident moving around by themselves in the city,” said researcher Thomas Gallagher.
“Of course if you can bring these guiding technologies indoors it's a really good application.”
Another UNSW team is using autonomous robots to virtually reconstruct indoor environments. Similarly, researchers in Japan are experimenting with Nintendo Wii remotes and Microsoft Kinect to map floor plans.
Canberra-based Locata deploys ground-based local positioning systems for military and commercial applications like mining, where satellite navigation is flaky or non-existent (e.g. underground). It is more expensive but more reliable and accurate than using Wi-Fi and smartphones as base stations and antennas need to be installed.
Another Australian company, Smarttrack RFID, has developed indoor positioning technology for museums and art galleries to track their collections. Visitors can take advantage of the technology to find any artwork or piece including background information and customise their own guided tours. The technology is already installed in Otago Museum in New Zealand.