Technology Blog

Next phase of the smartphone revolution: Indoor maps

Over 90,000 indoor locations are forecast to be mapped and accessible via smartphone by the end of 2015, as indoor positioning edges closer toward mass acceptance. That number is projected to more than double by the end of the decade, with the retail environment—malls and larger stores—leading the way.

Available on services like Google Maps, indoor positioning provides location information and navigation for the interior of buildings, where satellite signals from global positioning systems typically cannot penetrate. In addition to providing location information in retail environments, other uses are expected to include locating friends in a crowded nightclub or concert; finding products in a large store (or being directed to certain sections of a store); location-based gaming; and tracking staff—particularly firefighters, physicians, and other emergency services staff, as well as employees at very large offices or factories.

Wi-Fi and smartphone on-board sensors are the technologies that initially drove the market, with dedicated infrastructure, including Bluetooth, radio beacons, and light-emitting-diode (LED) lighting, now beginning to play an increasing role. The popularity of Wi-Fi is due to its low cost, ease of use, and existing infrastructure, although it is not the most accurate positioning technology. For greater accuracy, projects are starting to utilize Bluetooth and LED.

Digital maps of buildings and indoor location mapping

The retail sector’s early build-out of infrastructure to enable positioning is partly due to the valuable information that can be obtained from tracking specific populations (e.g., the average time people spend in certain areas of a store) and the potential to market specific products to consumers based on their location. While this raises potential privacy concerns, it is expected that the majority of end users are likely to overlook such concerns if given the opportunity to receive free navigational services and other benefits in return.

The issue of “who pays” may be very different for non-retail environments, where venue owners may have to pay the up-front costs of the positioning infrastructure and then pass them on to users in some cases (directly or indirectly). For example, hospitals and military installations may wish to track their staff and would therefore likely need to pay for the technology themselves.

In department and big box stores, a low-cost infrastructure, such as beacons, is expected to become the predominant positioning technology due to the high level of accuracy required to find an aisle, area, or even specific product within a large and cluttered space. However, this is expected to be available in only a small proportion of stores in the next few years.

Airports represent another potentially attractive venue for indoor positioning, as travelers are often unfamiliar with their surroundings and thus receptive to navigational assistance. Although airports are fewer in number than malls and stores, their high traffic and captive audience provide significant incentive for the installation of interactive navigational infrastructure—and most large commercial airports are expected to have indoor positioning by 2020.

Jamie Fox is principal analyst, industrial and medical technology, IHS Technology