Mapping the great indoors is new final frontier for tech giants

Helping people to navigate while they are inside buildings is the next big battle

Set for take-off: helping people to move around public spaces, such as offices and airports, is the next great challenge facing the early-stage indoor mapping sector

Set for take-off: helping people to move around public spaces, such as offices and airports, is the next great challenge facing the early-stage indoor mapping sector

 

Captain James T Kirk believed that space was the final frontier. He was wrong. Scientists may not have finished mapping the universe we live in, but as far as Erik Bovee is concerned, it’s just as tough trying to work out how to help people get from one room to another.

The entrepreneur and venture capitalist believes the next big battle among tech giants will centre on indoor navigation. He says while it is all very well assisting people to travel from one part of the city to another, helping them to move around public spaces such as offices and airports is the next great challenge.

It is unconquered territory, but coming up with a way to do it well isn’t proving easy.

While Google is making some progress in mapping internal locations such as museums and art galleries and Apple is reportedly about to announce a revamped Maps application for iOS9 which will include new indoor mapping abilities, we are still at the early stages of this technology.

Competition

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“People spend around 80 per cent of their time indoors so to win this space is the ultimate,” Bovee told The Irish Times. “It’s effectively the last frontier for location-based services but it’s computationally quite difficult to do well.”

Originally from California, Bovee is a founding partner at SpeedInvest, an early-stage venture fund based in Vienna with a focus on European tech start-ups. He’s also vice-president of business development at Indoo.rs, an Austrian start-up that recently worked with San Francisco International Airport on a project to help visually impaired passengers find their way through the airport’s terminals using a prototype smartphone app.

As its name suggests, the company develops indoor location and navigation technology for a wide range of purposes, including events, retail and the emergency services.

It even helps users to find their way around big office blocks and locate colleagues and free desks.

Preloaded map

The app comes with a preloaded map of the terminal and uses data from a traveller’s smartphone along with information from nearby beacons and phone signals to triangulate their location within about five metres.

The system also uses Apple’s Voiceover technology to read out points of interest along the way, such as the location of ATMs, toilets or restaurants.

While it has been primarily designed to help the visually impaired, the plan is to make the app available for everyone and to expand the services to identify passenger flows, locate congestion and crowded areas and allow retailers to send real-time offers and coupons based on a customer’s location and interest.

Bovee is optimistic that Indoo.rs, which was founded in 2010, can be a major player in terms of indoor mapping.

Having secured what it called a “significant six-figure sum” in a funding round in 2013, the company refuses to confirm whether approaches have been made to acquire it.

But given that many of the tech giants are busy buying up similarly focused start-ups, it’s likely that the firm’s progress is being closely monitored.

According to Bovee, the jury is still out on who is going to win indoor mapping. The difficulty for anyone working in the space is that while GPS technology has made it relatively straightforward to map outdoor locations, it doesn’t tend to work as well inside.

Interesting stage

Like many of its rivals, Indoo.rs uses both wifi and GPS to help locate and guide users, but it also relies on a range of other data sources such as a smartphone’s accelerometer, gyroscope, barometer and compass to help improve accuracy.

“Indoor mapping is an interesting early-stage technology area where you see strategic players from a number of areas – from radio semiconductor sensor device manufacturers to traditional location-based services and geoinformation system providers and everyone in-between – all coming at this from different angles. It’s hard to see how it’s going to play out at this stage,” he says.

Challenges

“We’re now developing some technology which significantly improves that process and means you can just jog through a building and it will mathematically create a very accurate radio map for you. That said, this is an issue that needs to be comprehensively solved before there’s a business case to have a solution of this kind embedded in radio hardware shipping on every device.

“The end scenario is that we’ll probably end up with something similar to GPS, which will run on a co-processor on its own system on a chip pushing accurate location up through Android or IOS and based on a combination of sensor information, radio signals and so on but I’d give it two or three years before this is ubiquitous.”