One of the fastest-growing areas of mobile technology is indoor location positioning. Early on, most of the start-up action was in Europe, but there are now several indoor location start-ups in Israel
The Guest post was written by Dr. Bruce Krulwich, founder of Grizzly Analytics, a firm that analyzes mobile technologies still in research & development, selling work to virtually all the mobile companies world-wide
One of the fastest-growing areas of mobile technology is indoor location positioning. Apple recently acquired WiFiSLAM, Aruba Networks recently acquired Meridian, Ruckus Wireless recently acquired YFind, and more deals in this area are announced every week. Early on, most of the startup action was in Europe, but there are now several indoor location startups in Israel.
The need is clear. People now expect their mobile devices to know their locations, for maps & navigation, for location-based search, for check-ins, for tagging pictures and videos, for social networking, and for a myriad of other applications. But as soon as we go indoors, GPS stops working. We can’t navigate around a store, share locations in a mall, tag pictures indoors, or in any way use our location when our devices are indoors. Indoor location positioning technology refers to any technology that can tell a mobile device where it is when it’s indoors.
Based on analysis of years of R&D by major companies and over 50 startups, there are 4 categories of technologies that are used to determine indoor location. Interestingly, the startup companies in Israel reflect each of these 4 approaches.
4 doors to the indoors
The first approach is to use existing radio signals, such as cellular or Wi-Fi signals, to calculate the current location. This is not easy to do, because, for example, it’s hard to know whether a weak signal is because the device is far from the signal’s antenna, or because there is a thick wall in between the antenna and the device that is interfering with the signal. The effectiveness of these approaches depends largely on how many signals (cell towers, access points) are detected. Some systems calculate locations from radio signals using triangulation, which is fairly straightforward but tends not to be very accurate when there is interference of any sort. Other systems use what is called “fingerprinting” to go through a site a collect the radio signal data every few meters, and then to calculate the device’s location by comparing the observed signals to the collection of fingerprints.
The second approach is to start with a known location based on GPS, and as the device moves indoors, to track the device’s location using motion sensing. This “sensor fusion” motion sensing is based on the device’s accelerometer, compass, gyroscope and barometer. Signals from these sensors can be combined to determine at every point in time exactly how far the device has moved and in what direction. Many companies have researched how sensor data can be integrated, in software or in hardware, to track locations. The big challenge is how to compensate for tiny errors that tend to accumulate.
The third approach is to add new, customized radio devices in the areas that you want to cover, that can be used easily and effectively to determine location. These customized radio devices, usually called “beacons,” emit signals using Bluetooth, UWB, or other radio frequencies, that are used by devices to calculate their locations. In some cases the beacons transmit their locations, in some cases they transmit precise timing data, and in some cases the beacons merely transmit their ID.
The fourth approach is to use other esoteric approaches to determine location. Some companies are researching special lights that transmit data to devices. Others are researching use of real-time cameraphone images to determine location and orientation. Others are comparing sounds heard through the device’s microphone to profiles of sounds typically heard at various locations. Others are using measurements of the earth’s magnetic field. Approaches such as these have not yet been deployed in practical applications, but appear promising.
All of these approaches have been researched by major mobile, chip and technology companies, including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Samsung and others. These approaches have also all been developed into solutions by startup companies, many of whom have deployed their technology in malls or offices worldwide. Google has added indoor location to Google Maps, covering thousands of malls and other public places world-wide. But for truly effective and accurate indoor positioning, malls and large stores are deploying their own apps, that integrate indoor location solutions specifically turned for their locations.
Israeli startups representing the full spectrum of indoor location technology
While most of the early startup action in indoor location was based in Europe, there are now several startups here in the Startup Nation (aka the Tiny Dynamo) that are working in this area.
Haifa-based WiseSec has developed beacons based on Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE, that can deliver sub-meter accuracy in indoor location positioning. BLE is currently supported primarily by iPhones, but has begun to emerge in Android smartphones as well. As the name implies, BLE is designed for low power requirements, both in smartphones and in the beacons that are deployed around the site. WiseSec claims that 50-60 of their beacons can give this excellent indoor location positioning accuracy for a site of roughly 10,000 square meters. Deploying 50-60 beacons obviously takes work, but sub-meter accuracy is 5-10 times more accurate than most indoor location technology on the market. WiseSec has been working until now in security-related markets, and is now entering the mobile arena. In addition to indoor location positioning, WiseSec is exploring how its technology can be used for other things, such as mobile payments.
IndoorGo is developing technology based on research at the Kinematics & Computational Geometry Multidisciplinary Laboratory of Ariel University. The company’s operations and R&D split between Israel and Russia. IndoorGo initially created highly-mathematical sensor fusion software that integrated sensor data to track locations as a device moved, and later integrated radio signal analysis to compensate for accumulated errors in motion tracking.
Also based in Haifa is GeniusMatcher, which is taking a relatively unique approach to location positioning, and using images from a device’s camera to determine where the device is location and in which direction it’s facing. GeniusMatcher’s 3D image analysis enables devices to compare the current camera image to a set of collected images with associated locations, and to determine their location based on exactly how the current camera image differs from the stored images. In addition to determining the device’s location, GeniusMatcher’s system Mally gives additional information about nearby stores and places, navigation to points of interest, and information about nearby friends. GeniusMatcher will be launching a trial in a mall in Europe in September.
The most recent entrant to the indoor location space in Israel is Navin, just recently out of stealth mode. Their technology uses sensor fusion to track a device’s movements for a short time,and then combines that data with data from other nearby phones to construct a map of the site. At the same time, devices store radio signal fingerprints (presumably including Wi-Fi signals) as they move around. These signal fingerprints are then used by other devices to estimate their locations based on observed radio signals. In this way, their system uses crowdsources to combine the benefits of radio signal fingerprinting with the self-starting nature of sensor fusion.
There are a few other indoor location positioning initiatives in Israel, currently in stealth mode, but these four startups cover a range of technology approaches. There are over fifty indoor location startups world-wide, virtually all of them taking approaches similar to one of the four described above.
I predict that by the middle of 2014 we’ll have indoor location trials in malls in Israel, some using technology from Israeli startups and some with technology from abroad. I also expect that Waze will leverage Google’s indoor location technology to integrate indoor location maps.
The next question is what users will want from indoor location technology. Are maps and navigation enough? Do you want to find friends that are in the same mall? Automatically check-in to the stores that you walk into? Remind you when you near a store that sells something you need? All this and more might be coming soon!
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Indoor map