Location-based apps' next frontier: Indoors

augmented reality apps
Derek Walter

It's a recent Saturday and I'm searching for Spider-Man -- the comics version -- at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. Entering the busy shop across the street from the famous university, one must shuffle carefully through the entrance to avoid bumping into other shoppers.


Screenshot from a smartphone showing the results of a bookstore shopper’s search using AisleConnect.

This retail space also is crowded visually -- displays confront a consumer from every direction -- and it's not immediately clear where the comic books are. Rather than asking for help at the information desk, I take out my iPhone 5C, open an app called AisleConnect and log in. Tapping letters into a search box in the "shop" section of the app returns several titles featuring Peter Parker. Touching "location" on the app shows a map of the store's layout, with highlighted areas indicating the shelves that house the remainders. Sure enough, in the store's basement stacks, there is Spidey among the superheroes in print.

As a straightforward exercise, this on-site search illustrates a marriage of mobile technologies -- the smartphone, the telecommunications network, the app developer's interface -- with a retailer's IT systems, including updated inventory data, mapped to the store's layout. It's also one part of a much bigger picture.

The ubiquity of smartphones and end-users' familiarity with mapping apps has made finding one's way by car or public transit and on foot a common occurrence. But systems that help us find our way and interact with items indoors, and within defined campus boundaries -- places like colleges, convention centers, medical areas, sports stadiums, shopping malls and airports -- are entering a growth phase.

ABI Research estimates that 30,000 sites installed indoor location projects in 2014, across a range of industries. The firm says these systems will continue to spread and, by 2018, some 800 million smartphone users will be toting applications that interact with indoor location data. Experts cite the widespread installation of cellular and Wi-Fi networks, emerging wireless technologies like Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and the availability of low-cost sensors as factors that will help these applications proliferate.

Walgreen's 3D YouTube

This image, taken from a YouTube video, shows a pilot project at Walgreens to provide 3D views of goods sought by a shopper in a store. The technology comes from Google’s Project Tango and Aisle411, a shopping location application maker.

"There's just a huge potential for these technologies," says Patrick Connolly, a senior analyst at ABI Research in London. BLE beacons, for example, emit signals that can be picked up by mobile apps, and present opportunities for uses that go far beyond retail. "We really see these becoming almost as common as keys are in our life today. These will start going into connected homes, into offices and buildings, into hospitals, hotels, really becoming commonplace," Connolly adds.

In search of business value

IT managers and business strategists interviewed for this article who are deploying location-based systems, either inside their facilities or within a campus boundary, echo this sense of potential. As a group, they say they expect to discover more ideas for the systems as their customers experiment with how the map data appears to them. They deal with privacy concerns by making apps opt-in, or by emphasizing that their systems send information but don't collect any data -- in other words, it's a one-way info faucet.

Other challenges to overcome include design considerations to ensure their first efforts emphasize usefulness; that the location-based service builds on existing IT investments -- including geographic information systems and systems that catalog building floor plans, the locations and stocks of goods for sale and other assets -- and adding additional technologies, such as Wi-Fi access points and BLE beacons, to the mix.

"We're very excited about the opportunity to try this," says Anne Canty, senior vice president for communications at the American Museum of Natural History. The New York institution, among the first museums to introduce a navigation app for iOS devices in 2010 and another for Android in 2012, is getting ready to launch a new location-aware app using BLE beacons from Aruba Networks in early 2015. The smartphone app is one of the ways the museum seeks to make its facility -- four floors within 25 buildings over four city blocks in Manhattan -- more engaging and accessible.

While many of the museum's 5 million annual visitors want directions from where they stand to find the 92-foot-long blue whale exhibit, others may need a snack or the restroom. Canty says the updated app will be designed to help them find all of these.

IT professionals and others involved in implementing indoor location systems do not talk about their systems as if they are a killer app. That could be because these systems are still emerging, or because these veterans want to avoid a hype curve.

Instead, what dominates their discussions is the need to generate incremental business value from existing IT systems. Can we add indoor maps to the work we do already and gain something new for customers or colleagues? Can we make processes more efficient, to save time and money or reduce risk? In the projects described below, the answers start with a "yes, and." Yes, we know there's value here. And we believe it will lead to more in the future when we gain experience.

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