Google Maps the Indoors, So Navigating Ikea Is No Longer a Nightmare

Even though GPS does not work reliably indoors, Google has found a tricky way around that limitation to map the insides of buildings, starting today with a handful of malls, airports and retailers in the U.S. and Japan.

Google Maps 6.0, available to Android users, will provide access to indoor layouts for a few dozen locations, so shoppers and travelers can find their way around without having to ask for directions.

Google’s Product Management Director Steve Lee told All Things D that — just as with outdoor Google maps — a person’s location will be highlighted by a flashing blue dot surrounded by points of interest.

In an airport, that means you’ll be able to find a particular gate or ATM, or if you are in a mall, you’ll be able to find the Gap or the kids’ play area. For Ikea, the home furnishings store known for its sprawling layout and chaotic atmosphere, it means finding the bathroom or the smorgasbord before a state of emergency is reached. Better yet, it could even mean figuring out where to park, based on which mall entrance is closest to the store you want to visit.

The announcement was made today on Google’s blog.

To make it all work, Lee says, they’ve been able to fine tune the location-based services Google uses for the outdoor locations, including cellphone towers, Wi-Fi hotspots and GPS — without requiring the retailer to install any new hardware. He claims it’s so accurate that the phone can pick up on the fact that a shopper is taking the escalator up or down and automatically changes the display of the store’s floor layout accordingly.

Bellevue, Wash.-based Point Inside has been working on this very problem for the past few years and has teamed up with several malls, retailers and other app developers to provide the indoor-mapping technology. Its technology works across iPhone and Android devices, but of course, Google’s advantage is that it will be able to leverage its install base of millions of Google Maps users, who will likely start using the new feature without having to change behavior or download a separate application.

Google said all the technology was built in-house by its own engineers.

For Google, the key will be accuracy. Getting location information even with the help of GPS can be challenging, even outdoors. Adding multiple floors, thick cement walls and getting up-to-date data from the retailer, mall or airport, adds to the complexity.

Starting today, there will be indoor maps for several hundred million square feet, including 17 airports, several department stores, including Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s; big-box retailers like Home Depot and Ikea; and major malls, such as the Mall of America in Minneapolis.

Lee said that for now the team’s focus is on adding more locations, not on monetizing the feature, but it’s easy to see how Google could present an advertisement to someone as they walk by a merchant in the mall. With the search provider already dabbling in daily deals and mobile payments, it’s not a stretch at all.

Here’s Google demonstrating how it works:

(Restroom photo credit: Pictonym.)

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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google