Indoor location hit a positive milestone at this year’s MWC, where for the first time it got some serious and positive attention. Which is a hopeful signal for those of us who believe in the value and need for indoor location capabilities, to truly unleash the powers of the smartphone indoors.
While I am buoyed by the positive attention, I also see an underlying trend that can have a negative implication on the adoption of indoor location despite the apparent momentum. So while I congratulate the innovations that led to many of these breakthrough technologies, I am hesitant to declare the challenge overcome.
Many of the indoor positioning technologies being touted, require specialized chips or infrastructure to replace the “missing” GPS element that makes outdoor positioning so prevalent. And while this approach works well for niche markets like asset tracking or firefighting, where the infrastructure and user equipment are defined by the same vendor and are there to fill a vacuum. The same cannot be said for the consumer smartphone market where the device’s capabilities are controlled by Apple and the Android device manufacturing ecosystem.
What this means is that any indoor location technology will need to work with the standard array of technological capabilities that are uniformly embedded in the large majority of smartphone devices.
The reason “outdoor” location took off, is because Skyhook Wireless recognized the need to work with the readily available sources of information and mapped cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots to create a location database. The adoption of the Skyhook model along with GPS enabled location positioning use to explode and enable a new breed of applications.
The alternative location capability which is primarily used for 911 calls, uses the wireless network which is also a ubiquitous capability to locate devices. While this is rarely used in applications for a host of reasons, the NSA and justice department recognize this inherent value and put great emphasis and significant resources in collecting that information.
For indoor positioning to take off it will need to repeat the same approach and market conditions as those of its outdoor counterpart, which means that indoor positioning technologies that are adopted will be those that take advantage of the device sensors already in use, along with a dynamic capability that will assist the sensors in correcting any errors. This approach is commonly referred to as “sensor fusion”.
Any technology that requires new fixed infrastructure, even if its as simple as Bluetooth beacons, will pose a significant limitation to the capabilities and the adoption of indoor positioning capabilities. The value of fixed indoor infrastructure is as a complement to improve accuracy where it is required or simply useful.
Apple recognized this when it acquired WiFiSlam whose technology is similar to Skyhook in that it learns the Wi-Fi RF fingerprint patterns of a location. Combined with the sensor fusion approach, this should enable accurate and infrastructure-less indoor location capabilities.
The other option is for carriers to look at their networks and attempt to enable enhanced location accuracy, as well as increase its ease of use by third party developer. Both of which are unlikely.