The Rise of Indoor Navigation

You may never get lost in a mall again with these new technologies, designed to help you navigate inside places traditional GPS-based mapping apps can’t

Hong Kong airport.jpg
Travelers walk in the departure hall of Hong Kong International Airport. Nikada/iStock

On an average day here in Hong Kong, I might walk several miles without ever going outdoors. This is possible thanks to an extensive system of interconnected shopping malls, office towers, covered elevated walkways and subway stations. What’s not possible is to map these walks on Google Maps. Like most mapping services, Google Maps rarely covers indoor spaces. So I’ve learned to get around the old-fashioned way: looking at wayfinding signs, asking directions, trial and error.

But soon, getting lost indoors may become just as rare as getting lost outdoors. Indoor navigation systems – think Google Maps for malls, airports, hospitals and other large buildings – are on the rise, and they aim to remake our sense of space as thoroughly as GPS already has. 

“GPS gets you to the shopping mall but doesn’t work inside,” says Roger McKinlay, a navigation specialist and former president of the UK’s Royal Institute of Navigation. “The signals are weak and the receiver has no hope of finding four signals, which have not been bounced around. So other forms of positioning are needed.”  

These other forms of positioning are shaping up to be big business. A recent report from the research firm MarketsandMarkets estimates the indoor location market – which includes indoor navigation as well as indoor data tracking (such as how long someone spends in a specific store in the mall) – will be worth $41 billion by 2022. Another report, from Opus Research, estimated that, as of 2014, there were some 200 startups working on indoor navigation systems.

These systems use a variety of different technologies, from WiFi to radio waves to magnetic fields. It’s not yet clear which, if any, technology will become dominant. Many current systems rely on WiFi or on Bluetooth beacons installed around a given building, which can communicate with a user’s phone and offer real-time directions similar to GPS. In May, London’s Gatwick airport installed 2,000 tiny, battery-powered beacons. The beacons work with a navigation system developed by UK startup Pointr, which says it’s working with a number of other airports on similar projects. A Hong Kong-based startup called Cherrypicks is set to bring beacon-based indoor navigation systems to airports in Hong Kong and mainland China, where Beijing is busy building what’s set to be the world’s largest airport. Users can turn on an augmented reality feature to follow arrows imposed on the phone’s camera view. The augmented reality feature also translates signage into a number of different languages.

But WiFi requires active connection, and installing beacons can be expensive and time-consuming, so tech companies are exploring other methods as well. Earlier this year, Google announced it was working on an indoor positioning technology called VPS that works with its (since discontinued) Tango augmented reality system, which mapped indoor spaces using a depth-sensing camera built into its phones. Around the same time, Microsoft released Path Guide, an Android-only app that uses a phone’s built-in sensors to create routes for users to follow. Using sensors like the phone’s accelerometer to measure walking speed and the magnetometer to determine starting location of an initial user, it breaks the user’s steps into simple directions (walk 20 feet, turn left, etc.). The next person who wants to go to, say, Platform 4 of the train station, can then simply follow. The app’s selling point is that it doesn’t rely on beacons or anything else that needs installation. But it does rely on other people having already gone where you need to go.

Other companies are developing what McKinlay describes as “hybrid systems,” which use various methods consecutively or at once. The Finnish company IndoorAtlas uses geomagnetic technology, taking advantage of the metal in buildings’ construction materials and phones’ built-in magnetic compasses to pinpoint and track users. This can be combined with WiFi and beacon technology to add features such as “proximity marketing” – advertising directly to a user when they near a particular location (Sweet snack sound good? Hey, you happen to be right next to a Cinnabon!).

British company Focal Point Positioning offers technology that boosts weak indoor GPS signals, combined with a navigation system that uses a phone’s various built-in sensors. When the GPS fades out, such as when a user goes deep into a subway station, the other sensors take over.

“The indoor navigation space has been growing a lot for the past 10 coming on 15 years,” says Ramsey Faragher, the company’s CEO. “The holy grail has always been to navigate right up to the door [of the room you’re looking for].”

Faragher says his company’s technology can track your phone to a centimeter level, making it potentially useful not only for navigating malls and airports but also for tracking firefighters or soldiers as they respond to emergencies.

S-GPS - Focal Point Positioning

Once these technologies are widely available, how useful will they be for the average person? David Vanden-Eynden, the co-founder of Calori & Vanden-Eynden, a design firm that specializes in wayfinding signage and design, says getting lost is actually not a problem for most people in most buildings.

“Are we actually solving a problem that doesn’t exist?” he asks.

Most purpose-built buildings, like malls and airports, are quite linear and straightforward, Vanden-Eynden says, so it’s rare to need much navigation help beyond the existing signage. Exceptions include big department stores, which are confusing by design, so shoppers will spend more time there. Hospitals are another common navigation challenge.

“[Hospitals] tend to grow and lots of buildings get added on, and corridors and sometimes floor plates don’t match,” Vanden-Eynden says. “Plus hospitals are high-anxiety spaces, and I think that contributes a lot to people getting disoriented or lost. They don’t want to be there in the first place.”

But it’s not yet clear whether those most in need of wayfinding help will be served by new technologies.

Hesper Smyth, a lead designer at wayfinding design firm Corbin Design, points out that designers working on physical wayfinding must follow guidelines set out by the Americans with Disabilities Act. That means letters on signs must be a certain size, signs must be mounted at a specific height from the ground, letters and pictograms must contrast with their background and so on. Designers also take into account populations with specific needs, such as the elderly or those who don’t speak English, Smyth says. The elderly, a population especially vulnerable to getting lost, may not have the technological wherewithal to use indoor navigation apps.

“Really the audience isn’t quite there yet, and the technology isn’t solid enough to rely on solely,” Smyth says.

But it seems likely that it’s just a matter of time before the technology gets there. And when it does, users can’t be far behind.

“The retail business would love to be able to target us with adverts relating to a real physical position, not just our online movements. Store designers would love to have a big data set of customer movements to work out how to better lay out their stores,” McKinlay says. “The chance of success is very high because there are real commercial rewards.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.