With today's technology, it seems like almost every bit of Earth has been mapped—even parts of the underwater world. But it's a different story inside buildings. With the accuracy of GPS faltering indoors and radio waves providing marginal improvement, navigating inside isn't as simple as firing up a maps application.
IndoorAtlas believes it has found a solution to this problem—by tapping into the magnetic field, which for millions of years has been guiding turtles, whales, salmon, and other migratory animals. Enabled by ultra-accurate positioning, IndoorAtlas believes product-proximity ads could be the next forefront of advertising. The company opened up its magnetic-field API Wednesday and said its mapping app will soon arrive for iOS and Android.
IndoorAtlas originated in the academic world. Founder and CEO Janne Haverinen, a professor at Finland's University of Oulu, began studying indoor robot navigation in the late '90s. Noticing that buildings' magnetic distortions were leading his machines astray, he eventually turned the problem around and focused his attention on the magnetic interferences caused by steel structures. What he found was that the disturbances inside them were consistent, creating a magnetic fingerprint unique to a building. That became the crux of IndoorAtlas, which leverages what Haverinen calls "nature's GPS"—GPS that requires no infrastructure beyond a smartphone and works where no cellular connections exist.
"The secret has been hidden inside animals for millions of years," Haverinen told Fast Company. "I think a beautiful example of how we have been using this technology is in mines," he added, highlighting how he once ventured 3,000 feet below the surface of the Earth to map mines, using only his smartphone.
To demonstrate to me IndoorAtlas' effectiveness, Haverinen began by launching Google Maps. The blue dot and its encompassing circle showed us that GPS had narrowed down our location in San Francisco's financial district to a several-block radius. Eventually Wi-Fi kicked in, bringing the accuracy to a five- to seven-meter range. Haverinen then switched to IndoorAtlas's app, which was able to show where we were—within one to two meters of accuracy, he says—relative to a floor plan uploaded to his smartphone. Using the phone's compass chip and magnetometer, Haverinen had mapped the building minutes before I had arrived for our meeting, simply by specifying points A and B on the floor plan and walking along that route with his phone.
Indoor mapping is still quite new territory. Though Haverinen thinks Google has won the mapping war against Apple, indoor navigation is nascent—as is location-based indoor advertising. In fact, there's speculation Apple shut down its Wi-Fi API about a year and a half ago, cutting developers from access to Wi-Fi position data, in hopes of dominating this space (Apple did not respond to a Fast Company request for comment). Recognizing IndoorAtlas's potential, the Finnish government awarded the company a grant, giving it the funds to stay in stealth mode for a year. Haverinen declined to disclose the sum, but he did say the company has raised about $1 million from angel investors.
Because IndoorAtlas doesn't require additional infrastructure, such as the installation of wireless access points, the technology can be easily leveraged by retailers, which so far has been the major use case for magnetic-field mapping. (In addition to retail and mines, IndoorAtlas says its maps could be used to guide rescue efforts, museum tours, or navigation for the blind. Of course, it's up to developers to create these apps.) It takes about one to two hours to map a store's aisles, and the information can be used to help consumers locate items on a shopping list. Earlier this year, IndoorAtlas partnered with Finnish grocery chain Fonella, which used magnetic-field mapping to build an app for tablets installed on its shopping carts. The app helps shoppers find products and also surfaces relevant advertising for nearby products—the premise for product-proximity advertising, which IndoorAtlas showcased Wednesday at Advertising Week.
Wibe Wagemans, who heads IndoorAtlas in the U.S., likens the potential of product-proximity advertising to mobile ads. He said as an ad exec, he "was preaching mobile advertising to Procter & Gamble" in 2001.
"They get the concept. They understand it. But to hold these puzzle pieces together and to make it relevant—I think it took 10 years after my first speech to them before they spent $1 million worldwide on mobile advertising," said Wagemans, a former senior vice president of global brand advertising at Rovio. He considers the great indoors "the holy grail of advertising," saying it's a space advertisers will target in the coming years.
"It might not take off tomorrow. It might take off in a couple years," he said. Still, he noted, there's a good chance that, down the line, companies like Procter & Gamble could spend big bucks on indoor advertising.
[Image: Alice Truong, IndoorAtlas]