Indoor Positioning: It’s Here

Inside Information Will Be Very Valuable

IZat_tracking_lDetailed location information is becoming very valuable to the likes of Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Qualcomm and retailers everywhere. Smartphones can now calculate indoor location with great accuracy using a combination of sensors including GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microphones, gyroscopes, accelerometers and digital compasses. They can report on their latitude and longitude and even provide information about what the user might be looking at. The behavioural data that’s being collected at micro and macro levels is driving a whole new science.

This week, LG (together with Qualcomm) has launched an IZat-enabled indoor positioning service in Korea, available on LG’s flagship G3 smartphone. The feature set is embedded in the Snapdragon 801 system-on-chip (SoC) and other processors from Qualcomm, and combines information from several device sensors to determine location. LG has initially introduced the service for the Korean market only, and it will only work in the 21 venues for which digital indoor maps exist, but other markets are expected to follow. Users simply need to install an app from Google Play before they can find their way.

There’s industry-wide attraction to indoors. Apple, for example, has been working on a project to map large buildings across the globe, and these indoor plans can be used in harmony with beacons to track the location of iPhone users. Apple’s iBeacon and indoor maps will, like Qualcomm’s IZat, provide users with navigation in malls, arenas and airports. However, there’s also the potential to collect very detailed information about user behaviour, providing a possible revenue stream — Apple could work with retailers for local coupons and other contextual promotions in addition to gathering real-time user data.

Google has been working on indoor maps for its popular location services since 2011, and Nokia’s Here unit is one of the leading indoor cartographers. Many smaller companies have worked with retailers to enable the tracking of users down to amazing detail: for example, shoppers can be monitored via Wi-Fi signals even if the user doesn’t actively connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot. Information can often be tied back to a particular credit card or store loyalty programme, but even generic statistics about unnamed users can be useful to retailers.

Indoor location services are not necessarily exclusive to a device, and, as with most services, there’s certainly competition among providers to establish a large number of users. Google and Apple provide proprietary APIs for their maps, Qualcomm is working with a series of partners including LG, Microsoft and Nokia for indoor location services, and crowd-sourced mapping initiative OpenStreetMap is undertaking a project for indoor maps and supporting APIs. There’s little compatibility between these competing location platforms; map data and APIs from one supplier will not work with the other.

The use scenarios for indoor location services differ greatly for end users and service providers. Local search, for example, could become as local as a few metres. Navigation will no longer be about finding a particular place, but a particular item close at hand. However, the repercussion of such a service will be privacy concerns about what some might consider stalking. The industry should be prepared for a backlash as consumer groups and regulators grow aware of indoor technology developments. Consumers have been open about sharing information in the virtual world, but the feeling they’re being followed in real life could result in a different response.