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Crossing the LBS Threshold: From Outdoors To Indoors

Engagement using coupons through LBS ‘check-in’ type services are on the decline, but LBS is far from dead.  Marketers and brands need to keep in mind the next trend for LBS apps and services that will increase accuracy in targeting and engaging shoppers.

Google’s Indoor Maps Beta

I noticed the Google Maps indoor map update for my Android Nexus One earlier this week, and after going through a *quick work-around to allow the Android Market in China to download the update, I managed to take a browse around the San Francisco International Airport map.

*Note on the Android Market in China:  Apparently the Google Maps update isn’t allowed for China users.  I had to pop my SIM out and fire up the VPN before I could download the update.  The error message given prior to this work-around was: “This item is not compatible with your device.”  I hear there are other work-around methods, this is just the one that I use.

Google’s indoor mapping relies on an upgraded algorithm, and uses the existing information from cell towers, GPS, and WiFi signals in the surrounding area to pinpoint a user’s indoor location to an accuracy of about 5 – 10 meteres, and without the use of any additional phone hardware or beacons. So far, Google has partnered with more than 25 major businesses in the US and Japan, including but not limited to:

  • Mall of America, IKEA, The Home Depot, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, Daimaru, Takashimaya and Mitsukoshi.
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Narita International (NRT).
  • JR and Tokyu Corporation.

Google Indoor Maps of SFO Airport. Image from Wired.





A Quick Look At The Indoor Mapping Space

Despite the buzz about Google’s new indoor mapping features, they’re not the first to forage into this space.  Being the tech giant that they are though, their move has the attention of the general tech-sphere and is indication that indoor mapping is the next frontier for navigation and location based services.

Some of the existing players in this space that come to mind are (not limited to):

  • Micello (est. 2007, Sunnyvale- USA)
  • Point Inside (est. 2009, Bellevue- USA)
  • Qubulus (est. 2010, Malmö- Sweden. Disclaimer: also one of the contestants at this year’s G-Startup Competition)
  • BuildingLayer (est. 2011, Lexington- USA, a recent grad of the TechStars accelerator program Betaspring)

The technology behind the above-listed indoor navigation services also utilize algorithms to calculate indoor positioning, using a hybrid of preexisting signals from surrounding WiFi, and cell-tower triangulation.  One of the players to note though, is Qubulus, whose algorithm also provides dynamic z-axis location, allowing their maps to automatically switch floors when going up and down elevators or escalators (video below).  The other listed indoor mapping providers, including Google Maps, require the user to manually select which floor they are on.


Google’s new indoor mapping features actually don’t utilize any outside partners, so their move indoors obviously make the smaller players likely acquisition targets for larger tech companies who are also developing their own mapping services.  Apple, for one, has been acquiring several mapping companies in a clear move to separate their dependence on Google maps, especially after Android’s rise as a competitor to the iPhone.  In 2009, Apple acquired Placebase; in 2010, they acquired Poly9, a 3D mapping firm, and then in August of this year, they acquired another 3D mapping company, C3 Technologies.  An acquisition of one of the smaller indoor mapping companies would be a likely move for Apple in the near future.

Microsoft’s Bing Maps already has a similar indoor mapping service which launched this year in August called “Venue Maps“, but seems somewhat handicapped as it supposedly doesn’t actually dynamically locate you inside buildings or provide floor detection.

Bing's Indoor "Venue Maps". Image from Bing Community Blog




Baidu, China’s search giant, also has an indoor mapping service called “Interior Maps” (室内地图, shìnèi dìtú) which launched in October this year, and has an impressive inclusion of 500 malls throughout Beijing and Shanghai (comes to show that I need to use Baidu Maps more!).


NAVTEQ, the wholly-owned subsidiary of Nokia, also released their indoor mapping product called, “Destination Maps,” in March of this year, and provides very interesting possibilities for mobile advertisers.  NAVTEQ is one of the prominent mapping and navigation companies, and currently provides map data for many GPS device makers like Garmin, ZorroGPS, and NDrive, and also for web-based maps such as Yahoo! Maps, Bing Maps, and MapQuest.

The indoor capabilities which they are aiming to achieve goes beyond basic indoor location tracking, and instead are focusing on developing a system to provide accurate indoor navigation within public buildings.

However to achieve this, NAVTEQ’s Destination Maps technology requires more data that can be provided by existing cell-towers, WiFi signals, and GPS.  Instead, NAVTEQ is using the Bluetooth 4.0 standard, and requires that at least one of these locator antennas in a serviced room.  This method provides accuracy of up to 21cm, and also the transmission of map meta-data to give software a way to recognize the differences between Z-levels (floors), escalators, elevators, stairs, emergency exits, and even Points of Interest (POI) that can be used for stores, or even product aisles.


Indoor LBS: The Next Frontier for LBS Apps and Services

So what does this all mean?

For one, indoor navigation and LBS will be a big market for developers to keep an eye on.  From a study by Strategy Analytics, people spend 80-90% of their time indoors, and 70% of cellular calls and 80% of data connections originate from indoors.  The implementation of indoor location tracking for Google Maps, NAVTEQ’s Destination Maps, and so forth, is just the beginning.  Holding even more potential (and $$) is the ability for devices and services to accurately discover what is around the user.

What marketers and brands need to start thinking about is how these technologies can be used to accurately target shoppers through location-targeted offers.  Google is already exploring ways to connect deeper with the user through their Android phones with Google Wallet and Google Offers in discovering a shopper’s purchasing habits.  Connect that to Google Indoor maps in malls, and specific discounts and coupons could be pushed directly to shoppers as they pass by competing stores.

Likewise, as accuracy increases, similar location-targeted offers could be presented to shoppers as they browse specific aisles of products.  Is a shopper browsing the snacks and chips section?  Send a promotion discount coupon for Coca-Cola products to drive them to purchase soda before they checkout.

There’s been a decline in the trend of outdoors LBS services that offer discounts after a ‘check-in’, such as Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, and BriteKite in the US, and Jiepang and Digu in China market.  But LBS isn’t tapping out yet, and the next trend to anticipate is how to engage shoppers through accurate location and behavior targeted advertisements.

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