FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Global positioning systems are useless for indoor navigation, as GPS must have clear access paths to satellites to work. But advances in indoor location and positioning technologies, combined with the growing ubiquity of Bluetooth and WiFi-enabled smartphones, is fueling a revolution in indoor “people tracking” by commercial enterprises such as large retail stores and shopping malls.
In addition to WiFi and Bluetooth receivers and beacons, enabling technologies include 3D gyroscopes and accelerometers for motion detection and direction. Eventually the new technologies could involve direct interaction with specific smartphones and their users.
Taking advantage of the fact that 70 percent of all visitors to commercial indoor venues have smartphones with WiFi and Bluetooth, companies are making the first steps, to monitor and collect information on indoor traffic, using server-based hardware and software provided by the likes of Cisco and others, and data analytics software from companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Amazon.
This first step in the use of smartphones for indoor location purposes is still in its early stages, says Jon Rosen, an analyst for Opus Research and a specialist in the commercial applications of indoor location and positioning. According to a survey of retail venues in the U.S. by Opus Research, about 65 percent of traffic monitoring is still done using tried and true methods such as human counters or infrared tracking at entrances and exits. Rosen said that currently no more than 21 percent of retailers have installed systems that make use of Bluetooth on smartphones to collect data on building traffic. The problem is, he explained, such uses alone aren't exciting enough in commercial potential.
That will change as soon as the right technologies are in place to do what he calls smartphone user "engagement." Current Opus projections indicate that spending on indoor location monitoring will reach $1.6 billion in the U.S. by 2018. "But this could easily be surpassed if systems are put in place that allow identification of specific smartphones and their location, their users and interests, as well as allow direct real-time contact to alert mobile users about products and services."
On the smartphone user side, Rosen said the shift to an engagement model is already in place. A 2013 study by Opus reported that 83 percent of smartphone users surveyed said they refer to their devices to search the Web while shopping in a store, looking for product information, special offers, and price comparisons. What may make the transition a bit iffy is that it is necessary to incorporate the right hardware and software in the phone to narrow down a smartphone user's position in an indoor environment.
This is not as easy as it sounds. For engagement to work, positioning must be accurate down to a foot or less. This is easily achievable as long as the mobile phone user is standing still. But when the user is moving, that same accuracy must be maintained and complemented with up-to-the-minute, real-time information about direction and speed. A few seconds of delay in calculating location, direction, and speed could result in errors up to ten to twelve feet or more in any direction.
One company that thinks it has all the pieces that such a future engagement-based indoor location system will require is SenionLab, based in Sweden. Some approaches use Kalman filtering while others use particle filtering. Building on this the company has created a system that allows a smartphone to scan a variety of Bluetooth beacons located throughout an indoor venue. That data is then used to create a map of the indoor environment for precise calculation of the location and direction of the smart phone (and hence its user) in a building.
SenionLab uses a combination of Bluetooth beacons and WiFi hot spot signals to provide navigation information for indoor position and location tracking os smartphones.
According to SenionLab's CEO Christian Lundquist, the company's system has been deployed in 250 indoor venues worldwide, including hospitals, museums, stadiums, hotels, shopping malls, large retail stores, airports, railroad stations and even multistory parking garages. He said the variety of use cases includes personal wayfinding to direct smartphone users to their destinations, position logging, real time tracking, personal and store asset tracking, and as a means by which popup messages can be sent by stores to nearby mobile users regarding products and retail services that they might be interested in.
SenionLab’s approach uses little more than a software app on the smartphone to make it in-building location ready, but Lundquist said that more is needed. "To be successful an in-building system has to be easy to install and maintain for the companies who want such capabilities as well." To that end, SenionLab also provides Bluetooth beacons designed for indoor location purposes and Cloud server software a company can use for operating and maintaining their in-building location services as well as to do real-time data analytics of in-building traffic.
Via on-board Bluetooth tracking software from SenionLab, a smartphone can use strategically located beacons to precisely determine its position and create a map of its location inside a building.
But with numerous companies fighting for the same market, SenionLab is facing an uphill battle. For example, many smartphone manufacturers are looking to add such capabilities to their next-generation devices to offset declining sales in a saturated mobile phone market. Also making a bid are network companies such as Cisco and large software companies such as Microsoft and Google. In addition there are at least 100 or so small startups focused on various software algorithms they have developed for use with smartphones.
With full engagement of smartphone users using tracking technologies such as Bluetooth, a variety of indoor location use cases are possible.
The ideas being explored run the gamut: anchoring on WiFi hot spots, use of in-door audio speakers and LED lighting inside buildings, extracting information from the ambient magnetic fields in a building, Bayesian analysis, neural networks, indoor location using geofencing, path progress matching, wireless signal cosine-similarity matching, and predictive position estimation. "If anything is going to delay implementation of engagement-based indoor positioning it is not going to be a lack of technology solutions, but sorting through the many alternatives," Rosen said.
A recent Opus Research report estimates that spending on indoor location hardware, services and license fees will amount to $1.6 billion in the U.S. by 2018. "But this could easily be surpassed if the engagement model takes hold and adoption accelerates."
Opus Research estimates the Indoor location and people tracking market could reach at least $1.6 billion in sales by 2018.
(Source: Opus Research)
The big question in terms of the underlying technology is which approach will dominate? Rosen said that if conditions are right, a company like Sension could get lucky and have the right mix of features to catch the attention of both smartphone users and the companies who want to reach them. "But it is just as likely that a larger company with a vested interest in the smartphone hardware platform, and the financial resources to make it happen, will dominate, even though it may have less than a perfect solution. But in a market as large as indoor positioning and location will be, even the losers will do well."