Will 2016 be the year indoor location finally goes mainstream?

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.

Moving beyond incremental innovation in mobile

Today’s WWDC marks the 7 year anniversary of the original iPhone’s AppStore – albeit Safari web apps only – and is undoubtedly an important moment in the iPhone’s 7 1/2 year history. And whether one is a user of Apple, Android, Windows, Symbian, Palm, Tizen, Blackberry, or any other Smartphone, it is unequivocally an important milestone in the launch of the Smartphone revolution we are all part of today.

This year’s WWDC announcement has an added degree of significance as it likely to shed valuable insight on where Apple’s new management sees the future of the iPhone, mobility and Apple as a whole.

In order to continue driving mobile innovation forward and not fall into the trap of mere incremental improvements, it is worth imagining how a Smartphone would be developed in today’s technological environment if there were no iPhones or Android Smartphone’s in existence to cloud our thinking.

The original iPhone was inspired by various halting attempts to create a combination device of the many products from the period that were trying to make their way into the market, such as phone and PDA combinations from Palm, MP3 players from both Apple and competitors, messaging from Blackberry, GPS from Garmin and TomTom and what was at the time being termed UMPC’s, which were meant to be a bridge between the iPad and a Netbook.

The Smartphone’s that resulted from the culmination of these efforts invariably led to a product which acted as a miniature mobile computer that combined many of those functions, along with new and creative means such as added sensors and features that took advantage of the nature of mobile devices. The result was a very self-centered product model which was all about turning itself into the center of the consumers digital lifestyle, resulting in the requirement of downloaded apps for nearly any type of activity.

Fast forward a few years and we find ourselves in a new and very different technical reality, which now includes; modules such as fitness, connected devices, the connected home and/or some of its components, presence awareness, and just an overall plethora of new devices and sensors which overwhelm today’s Smartphone’s and makes it appear unsuited to the new task.

If a Smartphone were to be redesigned from the ground up it would look very different, although like past efforts it would be inspired by the technologies which surround us today and the expectations they are generating.

A new mobile operating system would shift its emphasis from apps to experiences and be a device less focused on itself and the apps within it and more aware of its surroundings and gracefully interact with it. This in effect morphs the Smartphone into a users personal and contextually aware dynamic remote control.

In order to enable these capabilities, the mobile operating system would need to develop a set of friction-less capabilities to better interact with these new surroundings. The surroundings include physical items such as fitness modules as well as means to interact with the surrounding physical spaces.

For physical items the need to download a companion app is a step backward from the PC where drivers are automatically loaded for a detected module and peripheral, and it would be fairly simple to auto download companion applications in a mobile environment in a similar manner.

Interacting with the surrounding physical spaces presents an entirely different challenge for which an app as we currently know them is not the answer, as there will usually not be an installed app for the given environment and users are unlikely to go through the effort to download apps, nor does every space have the wherewithal to create apps. Physical spaces include dynamically triggered based on mere presence or where a sensor such as a Bluetooth beacon are present to denote and trigger a given capability.

These spaces require the ability to trigger and load pre-defined elements that can be laid out in accordance with a fairly basic HTML like style sheet such as CSS. These elements can include a basic set of elements built into the operating system, but can also include the ability to load a unique or third party element on the fly without requiring an app installation.

A retail environment is a perfect example of how this would work. When a user enters a merchant their phone prompts them whether they’d like to interact with a store, and if they say yes a light version of an app would be loaded that allows them to search for items or interact with a web based shopping list, and even go as far as self checkout. The capabilities can include indoor positioning to leverage in-store maps to find items which would require the loading of an indoor positioning element.

The same applies for connected devices in a smart home. Individual devices can announce their presence and automatically be displayed and organized based on where you are and what capabilities are available to the user at the given moment. This also holds true for apps which can be hidden or surfaced based on the current context.

Hints of these concepts can already be found in some Android self organizing home apps like Cover, as well as iOS’s Passbook and iBeacon as well as the rumored Healthkit and Homekit or Android’s Google now which can easily form the basis for this vision of mobile’s next generation.