Sunday, June 13, 2010

Indoor LBS and Hyper-Local Content is the Next Gold Rush for Mobile Commerce

America is home to the biggest malls in the world, and it makes sense to know where you are in the mall, and where you are going. In fact, according to Strategy Analytics, 70% of cellular calls and 80% of data connections originate from indoors. This means that location-enablers should focus on helping retailers and advertisers on indoor LBS marketing and advertising where the consumers spend most of their time. To say the least, the local advertising market is estimated to be $150 Billion in the U.S. alone.

Moreover, most LBS and Navigation requests are originated indoors and precise location is central to the mobile experience. While A-GPS and SUPL improve indoor location accuracy and time-to-first-fix (TTFF), the industry is finally realizing that A-GPS doesn't reliably work for indoor use cases. A-GPS is superb at turn-by-turn navigation and other outdoor uses, but GPS' utility stops at the front door so to speak.

Indoor LBS and Navigation has to be addressed by other technologies more suited to that environment. Wi-Fi comes to mind first regarding indoor location, because Wi-Fi access points are inside many buildings. However, position accuracy depends on Wi-Fi access point density, and more importantly, since Wi-Fi access points inside buildings cannot easily be mapped (with GPS)- even though Wi-Fi signals may be measurable inside the building, the locations of the sources are unknown and practically unidentifiable. Wi-Fi position accuracy can be improved by collecting signal fingerprints and map matching, i.e. forcing the positioning results on predefined locations; however, this is a costly investment.

There have been attempts to use Bluetooth for LBS and mobile connectivity. Although other RF technologies can provide better accuracy at lower power levels, it is the ubiquity of Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices that gives it huge potential due to the potential market size. Even the latest Bluetooth specs from the Bluetooth SIG are more friendly to low-power applications, so this might finally become a reality. Unfortunately, the limitation is that the user has to have their Bluetooth switched on. This might not be a problem as the specific application can automatically turn the Bluetooth on for the user.

While some might argue that floor plans based UI do not offer optimal user experience, the gold rush is on for digitizing floor plans and CAD drawings. Nokia, for example, has been mapping out buildings including malls, airports, and universities. In addition, Nokia has been working on API for indoor LBS and indoor positioning enablers.

Sensor based positioning is also key. Inertial sensors are being deployed in mobile devices (i.e. accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometer (barometer), and allow relative positioning from known initial position. Also, inertial positioning can be used to complement other indoor positioning systems. For example, 3D-motion climbing up a staircase, steps and floor changes can easily be detected in vertical position.

The future of indoor positioning is going to be a hybrid solution consisting of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC, RFID tags, sensors, etc. More industry convergence and consolidation to come!