Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

IndoorAtlas Aims to Use Magnetic Fields to Map the Insides of Buildings

Several years ago, I had a peculiar fascination with location technology. I tried out every GPS gadget that came along, examined how the precision on one would differ from another. Eventually, as navigation moved from dedicated devices to smartphones, the fascination wore off. A little help from the Google Maps app on my iPhone keeps me from getting lost pretty much anywhere I go, by car or on foot.

But it doesn’t work so well indoors. Signals from GPS satellites don’t easily penetrate inside buildings — the signals are about as strong as a dim light bulb — and help from Wi-Fi will only get you so far. Now there are numerous outfits that are aiming to fix that.

Earlier this year, Apple acquired a startup called WiFiSlam that does exactly that. Another company I once encountered, Rosum, sought to use TV signals for indoor positioning but, after a decade, ended up being bought out by TruePosition, another location-tech company that is a unit of Liberty Media and was one of its investors.

This week, I had a chat with Janne Haverinen, the CEO of IndoorAtlas, a startup that has spun out of Finland’s University of Oulu. Its approach is to use the unique magnetic properties that exist within every building to create a sort of fingerprint. It does this using the compass chip that’s inside every smartphone.

These chips and the apps associated with them aren’t used all that much, at least actively. When was the last time you launched the Compass app on your iPhone? And yet they’re present in every iPhone and Android phone. They usually show up in the teardowns conducted by firms like IHS. (Recent examples of an Android phone here and the newest iPhones here.)

Using these magnetic fields — which are caused, in part, by all the steel framing used in modern building techniques — to determine a position can give you a precision of about three meters, or 10 feet. That’s close enough to get you into the correct room for a meeting, navigate you to within sight of an airport gate, or get you in front of the painting or sculpture you want to see in a museum. And there’s no need for any new infrastructure. No new Wi-Fi hotspots, no more anything. The infrastructure is already there, naturally.

It turns out that the next generation of compass chips is getting even more sensitive to these magnetic variations, which will only increase the precision. “The current ones aren’t as sensitive as we would like, but the new ones are getting better,” Haverinen told me.

There was a time when GPS technology wasn’t very accurate, either. In mid-2000, President Clinton ordered an end to the intentional degradation of GPS signals for civilians, a policy known as Selective Availability. Once that was gone, an industry sprang up around navigation technology, because it was then possible to build software that could give you turn-by-turn instructions. Better magnetic sensitivity will enable indoor precision to 10 feet or better, Haverinen told me.

The plan for IndoorAtlas, which recently opened an office in Sunnyvale, Calif., is to give developers a set of tools to build apps that harness indoor-navigation capabilities. Imagine one for your favorite museum, or for a trade show, a mall or tourist attraction.

Of course, the real action is with retailers. As long as I’ve been hearing about location-based services on mobile devices, this has been a perceived treasure trove. Steer a consumer to the precise location of the product they need when they need it, the thinking goes, and you significantly boost the chance they’re going to buy. You can also figure out ways to advertise to consumers when they’re in a particular location. Sure, it may sound a little “Minority Report,” but one hopes that it would be more useful than intrusive.

There’s some work involved. Developers working on a particular building need to build a floor-plan file, and then collect data to go with it. In a typical retail environment, that will mean walking up and down the aisles with the phone. (See a video demonstration here.) In time, Haverinen said, he hopes to build up a significant database of floor plans of major buildings via the crowdsourced efforts of developers.

IndoorAtlas is an early-stage company, and between a grant from the Finnish government and investments from angels, plus a seed round of 500,000 euro (about $675,000) from Dallas-based Mobility Ventures, the company is said to have raised about $1 million.

The short video below gives you a pretty good idea of what the company has in mind, as well as the possibilities of what might be done when navigation technology companies intensify their attention on the indoors:

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