Friday, December 10, 2010

LBS Goes Indoors

Photo courtesy of 'smil
PresentsAs we're flying headfirst into the holiday season, what's on everyone's mind? Skiing? Vacation? Family?

I know what's on my mind - presents!

Getting them sure is a lot of fun, but what about shopping for them? Are you checking off items from your list lounging at home with a laptop? Or are you doing the legwork, quite literally, at the mall?

I, for one, was at the mall today, and while my feet were dutifully performing the familiar holiday shopping waltz, my mind was drifting to yesterday's discussion entitled "LBS Goes Indoors: Maps, Apps & Positioning, organized by the Wireless Communications Alliance. LBS (or location-based services) are entering the indoor space--think being able to seamlessly navigate (using your mobile device) from your garage, to parking at a mall, museum, airport, hospital, even a university campus, to, most staggeringly, within that mall, museum, airport, hospital or university campus! The technology is not there yet today, but there are companies working away on making this our reality in maybe just a few years.

Micello Indoor MapsOn the speaker panel were indoor LBS and mapping industry experts Ankit Agarwal of Micello, Jeremy Agulnek of NAVTEQ, Kiyo Kubo of Spotlight Mobile, Josh Marti of PointInside, Jerry Luk of Presdo, Michael Doherty of Polaris Wireless, Tristian Lacroix of IndoorLBS and Andy Birshaw of RetaiLigence. Moderating the discussion was Raj Singh of YumYum Labs.

Raj Singh opened the discussion, asking what it takes to build an indoor map. Speaking for Micello, an indoor mapping company that, according to its website, has the world's largest collection of indoor maps, Ankit Agarwal explained that the data for indoor maps already exists. By law, an image layout of the floor plan of a building must be available. The challenge is, organizing these disparate maps in a consistent manner. Jeremy Agulnet of NAVTEQ, the company that has mapped and owns the majority of the outdoor maps in use today, added that there is a fundamental difference in presentation for indoor maps, where people are walking in unconstrained areas. Josh Marti added that his company, PointInside, in addition to coordinating with venue owners, uses crowdsourcing and hires someone to actually walk the premises and confirm all the data. And if you're wondering, yes, there have been run-ins with security (and TSA at airports). :)

What about visual representation, was the next question from the moderator. Should indoor maps be drawn the same ways as roadway maps? Ankit Agarwal didn't think there should be a big difference, since what's important is usable geometric representation. Jerry Luk disagreed. In his opinion, there is a conceptual difference which influences how the maps should look, but the trick is going to be providing an integrated and seamless user experience from outdoor to indoor maps. One of the tricky issues that comes up with indoor mapping, for example, is representation of multiple floors. Josh Marti thought that over time a uniform cross-platform should evolve, to avoid each application using their own standard, which would make it less intuitive for users.

Next on the agenda: how important is accurate positioning to indoor mapping? Unlike street mapping, where accuracy would be great, but if your GPS tells you you've arrived a few houses too soon, you'll figure it out, with indoor mapping location accuracy is imperative. Imagine using an application that is trying to point you to your favorite lotion on a shelf with a hundred other lotions. If you are five feet off, your chances of finding it efficiently (which is the idea behind the application in the first place) are nil.

In all fairness, the level of accuracy in mobile devices (like the iPhone) has increased dramatically over their evolution. But it is still not where it needs to be. Case in point, as I was at the shopping mall, an indoor map application running on my Android phone in my hand, the pointer on the map had me floating over the shops instead of the hallway. Admittedly, not a big deal. Location technology still has room for improvement, that's all.

According to Robert Schoenfield, next year will be the year of the sensors that sensor technology would improve navigation accuracy. There may also be a shift from a "where am I" approach to navigation to a "where are they" approach, suggested Tristian Lacroix. Instead of trying to track the exact whereabouts of the user and the device, this approach will determine the location of the user in relation to the mapped things around her.

Photo courtesy of Giampaolo Macorig
On the road This leads to the next question: how does indoor positioning work indoors? Outside, there is the GPS, which is a network of satellites placed into orbit by the U.S. government, and which is completely free to use. But indoors, signal blockage from buildings and foliage prevents consistent and reliable GPS coverage.

There is no real solution to this problem, yet. Josh Marti considered that WiFi networks may be utilized to provide positioning indoors. Inertial sensors are very popular, which can track movement from a known location. Ultimately, thought Josh Marti, it will be what the market adopts. Ankit Agarwal added that this area is very popular and there are tracking companies working away on indoor positioning. He anticipates that there will be a breakaway soon.

So what are the potential uses for indoor mapping data? We've touched on some of them already: shopping malls, museums, airports. It turns out that hospitals have a huge return on investment if they can commission an app that gets patients to come to their appointments and to do so on time.

Universities, too, like to have apps for their campuses. It makes them look better to prospective students, more polished, more "shiny," in the words of Jeremy Geiger. Perception is everything and who is to say that having an easy-to-navigate map of the campus isn't going to bring a university's position up a point or two in the rankings.

So far, it seems, that indoor map applications tend to stay vertical. There is a different approach to malls than there is to hospitals, and a different approach to universities than airports. In the long-term, however, Josh Marti predicted, there would be integration and consolidation among the different vertical apps.

While agreeing that at the data level there would need to be consistency, Jerry Luk argued that visual presentation would continue to differ. But how many mapping apps is it practical for someone to have on their phone, countered Jeremy Agulnek?

Perhaps the kind of consolidation that will happen in mobile indoor apps is what we have seen in web with Facebook, suggested Jeremy Geiger. These days, although most businesses have a website, it is common practice to have a Facebook page and to direct traffic there.

This brings us to the final point: where is the money? What's the business model for capitalizing on indoor mapping services?

NetworkingIt depends on the business, of course. For Spotlight Mobile the answer is simple. The company is developing an application for a more efficient networking experience at conferences, allowing attendees to easily locate other members of the conference that they are interested in meeting. As someone who attends a lot of networking events, I, for one, am loving the idea! Conference organizers, thinks Spotlight Mobile's CEO, Kiyo Kubo, would be happy to pay for the service which would make the event more desirable in the eyes of those who come to network, and the cost can be passed down to the attendees by slightly increasing ticket price.

Other companies, like PointInside, think the monetization can come in several forms: (1) the legacy model of licensing the IP, and (2) advertising. Advertising appears to be the most obvious solution for a company like RetaiLigence. There is a lot of statistical data that is gathered and one monetization model could be in selling this data to those interested in smarter, more targeted advertising. Moving from search-based to push-based advertising would make this data extremely valuable.

Anyone who's watched Dora the Explorer knows there's yet a better map to be made (indoor or out)--one that can just as easily plot the course to a hiccuping bull as to the island where pirates have taken a stolen treasure chest, singing and dancing all the while. Today LBS is only going indoors. It's not there yet. But I can't wait to see what my shopping experience will be like in another year or two. And if only someone could add a feature that would make any trip fit into under 30-minutes, like every Dora adventure, wouldn't that be priceless!

Inna Efimchik

Emergence Law Group
  Emergence Law Group, specializing in assisting emerging technology companies in Silicon Valley and beyond, provides incorporation, financing, and licensing services as well as general corporate counseling.

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