Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Google, Nokia, Ericsson And Navigation's Next Frontier: The Great Indoors

Remember the last time you visited a new office building, airport, or university campus and were lost the moment you stepped away from the main doors? That's a problem that buildings like large hospitals try to fix with color-coded lines painted on the floor, complex signage systems, and other tweaks—usually very low-tech. Smartphone tech and intelligent mapping systems are about to change all that.

On Tuesday, Google introduced the latest version of its maps for Android, which will include detailed layouts for Ikea, Macy's, and 18 U.S. airports. Then yesterday, Nokia announced that it will be offering its own version of indoor maps using Bluetooth 4.0 as the technology. The race to map indoor space has begun—but with two very different types of technologies.

Bluetooth gets a bad rap thanks to those sci-fi-looking ear-bug headsets and the odd user behavior that goes with them. But the technology is powerful, simple, cheap, and it just got a lot smarter with the new Bluetooth 4 protocol. That was the starting point for a system that Nokia calls its Location Extension Protocol. It's similar to GPS, but instead of a precise set of radio waves being broadcast down to Earth from the stratosphere (which is why it's weak indoors—the signals don't penetrate far inside), Nokia's system links Bluetooth 4 with a sequence of locator emitters dotted along the ceilings of an indoor space. Using a triangulation method similar to GPS, the phone can then work out exactly where it is in three dimensions in indoor space. A pre-existing map of the space will still be needed in order to make the positinoning data meaningful to a lost conference attendee, but it's said to be precise down to about eight inches in position.

Nokia has spent billions of Euros on R&D, hoping this sort of breakthrough tech could give it a competitive edge. The firm is investigating all sorts of uses for the system, from gaming to true indoor navigation. The company has also been lobbying the Bluetooth Special Interest Group to agree on a standard for the system, in the hope that phones with it can go on sale by 2013.

But in the same way that GPS is almost useless without detailed maps of roads, indoor positioning systems won't be much use without detailed plans of buildings and structures—so that, for example, you know you're in Great Hall A and need to take the third corridor on the right to get to your destination. And that's where recent plans from Google plug into the story. 

In much the same way that Google allows users of SketchUp to crowdsource detailed 3-D versions of important buildings and landmarks for its systems, it's now allowing users to add interior floor plans of buildings to Google Maps. It's a simple process, Google points out, that merely involves uploading "pictures of your floor plans, blueprints or directories" and then lining up the submissions with satellite images in Google Maps. The data is incredibly rich and enables Google to literally see inside the buildings whose facades it images in StreetView. For now the Google Maps 6.0 for Android edition is where they show up, but this is Google we're talking about, and it won't be long before the Maps are available elsewhere.

Not only is Google getting an army of interested users to do massive amounts of donkey work for it for free, but it's assembling a database of internal maps that it can thread into all sorts of future location-based services, including location-based adverts.

The pieces all have to come together to produce a useful product, but with other firms like Ericsson working on the problem (it recently released an Indoor Maps and Positioning API for Android) it won't be long before your smartphone also helps you navigate inside the building its GPS powers directed you to by car.

As to how this tech may evolve in the future, check out Microsoft's old Vision of the Future promo clip. It's indoor nav solution is powerful, compelling:

There's just one thing the video neatly sidesteps: All of the odd security, crime, and privacy-related issues that this sort of innovation is bound to stir up. If we freak out about Google taking an image of our streets, having the data-thirsty giant act as a repository of plans for all of our buildings is bound to be controversial.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.