Indoor maps in the UK

Firstly indoor maps, or venue maps as Bing and Nokia prefer to call them, are nothing new. They’ve been experimented with on mobile devices over most of the past decade but even before then we had plans in shopping malls, airports and so on.

Store Guide – Official indoor map of Houndshill Shopping Centre in Blackpool
(C) Houndshill Shopping Centre 2013

So what’s all the fuss over such maps from the likes of Apple, Bing, Google and Nokia? Well quite simply it comes down to technology. They are all trying to get such mapping onto their mobile devices so that they can be used in conjunction with location. This enables new capabilities on smartphones and other mobile devices.

In March (2013), Apple acquired indoor-mapping company Wifislam who claim their technology works by enabling a smartphone to ‘pinpoint its location (and the location of other smartphones) in real-time to 2.5m accuracy using only ambient wifi signals that are already present in buildings’.

Other software developers, as described by Valerie Sarnataro for Technology Guide, take different approaches for indoor mapping, such as using a phone’s Bluetooth capability or using tools within a handset, like the accelerometer or gyroscope, to supply position information. Some companies even act as digital cartographers and create virtual indoor maps of locations, while others provide businesses with the means to do their own mapping.

IT Pro Portal suggests that Bing now has more than 4,700 indoor maps in more than 59 countries. Google has over 10,000 indoor maps and for smaller venues they’ve even been working together (with Microsoft). While the BBC report that Nokia have more than 4,000 locations in 38 countries. And the latest growth news this week were news reports that Nokia have now released indoor mapping for cities across India to HERE Venue maps.

According to the BBC, ‘Indoor coverage is seen as the next battleground for mapping technology’. I think battleground is perhaps a little misleading. As discussed Google and Bing have worked together where it makes better financial sense, and Bing already work with Nokia as a provider of points of interest as well as traffic information. But indoor mapping is seen as the next big thing in mobile mapping, so what are people going to use this for? And will it migrate to create a thriving market in this country.

Well the present day possible uses of this technology fall into 2 distinct categories – personal and business.


Personal use

Every day, well over 100,000 people visit the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. The four-storey mall is a major tourist attraction and occupies 4 million square meters of building footprint. It is expected to double in size, perhaps more on expansion and will eventually attract a whopping 62 million vistors a year.

It is in environments such as this that all four of these major companies promote indoor mapping as a tool for the consumer to navigate with. A few years ago Bing told how for most of their mall maps, ‘you can see parking, ATMs, entrances, as well as many other mall services’. But now the story has evolved. Now these are not just site plans but navigational and informational tools for people actually within the venue. Google tells potential venues that indoor maps ‘create a more convenient and enjoyable visitor experience at no cost! Your visitors can spend more time enjoying their experience, discover new points of interests, and avoid time spent searching for building directories’. Bing now promote their indoor mapping as part of a door-to-door navigation solution.

Google developer Don Dodge splits this personal use into 3 categories:

Navigation – Navigating inside large shopping malls, museums, airports, office buildings, college campuses, manufacturing plants, conference and convention venues.

Location sharing for social or family apps – Sharing your location with family and friends at large, crowded locations, or meeting up after individual activities.

Shopping list routing – Find specific aisle locations within stores for every item on your shopping list. Enter a search term to find location of any product.

There is little doubt that in the US companies seem to have embraced the idea, even multinationals such as IKEA. But can any of these really transcend into a British consumer market? Are we really going to see our nearest Westfield Centre full of people following their mobile phones around the building? Well I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea because who would have thought in-car satellite navigation or even smartphones themselves would have proved to be so popular? However I am sceptical. And as for the shopping list, I can’t see this taking off in an ASDA near you anytime soon!

So why in the UK map market should we be paying attention?

Well first of all, when it is done well, for example Bing’s coverage of London Heathrow Airport, then, from inner boundaries, to level information to simple point locations such as toilets, lifts and gate numbers, there is a lot of information there that many mapping companies do not have within their products. This becomes a concern (e.g. to us at Ordnance Survey) if any of these features have any market value. Bing have also chosen to group the buildings and colour by category of shop or restaurant.

Indoor mapping of London Heathrow Airport - Terminal 3 in Bing Maps (C) Bing and Nokia 2013

Indoor mapping of London Heathrow Airport – Terminal 3 in Bing Maps
(C) Bing and Nokia 2013

The subject of grouping and categorisation provides an interesting aside. Russian search engine Yandex has interestingly suspended its international mapping services whilst it undergoes a complete revamp akin to new look Google with Google+. Yandex have developed a beta of what appears to be a categorised search engine. Sounds interesting. Can’t wait to see what they do with their maps.

Bing with indoor mapping certainly offers stark contrast when compared to Google without indoor mapping. Where they both have indoor mapping, although the building misalignment is somewhat unsightly, I personally prefer Bing’s presentation to that of Google*.

*NB: This is current Google Maps, not new Google Maps – the preview of this does not yet contain indoor mapping.


Business Use

The business opportunities of indoor mapping are less closely related to the model of large American malls or airports and so are more likely to be relevant internationally, including in the UK.

Once again Don Dodge of Google offers a good understanding of potential use cases:

Advertising by location – Targeted advertising based on precise location, time, and interests.

Manufacturing/Inventory/Asset tracking – Track movements of machinery, expensive inventory, assets, robots, vehicles, etc.

Workforce location – Real time location of personnel like doctors, supervisors, technicians, team members. No more public intercom announcements asking Dr. Smith to call the Emergency Room.

Defense/Intelligence – Tracking team members and assets on missions, in the dark, or in crowded locations.

Fire and Police – First Responder team tracking in crowded or dark locations.
So no suprise to see Google developing a tool for advertising but it is more than just that. The other uses all really fall under the category of tracking. Tracking people and even objects indoors is interesting as a potential area of growth.

It would seem that advertising and tracking are the most obvious reasons for us to be interested in this as a product or service within the UK. There is bound to be a niche social market and Don Dodge also mentions the gaming industry. As a cartographer, I anticipate the indoor maps to simply match into the styles of whichever company is using them. The interest in indoor mapping is more from a data and commercial viewpoint. How lucrative it really is and whether personal and social uses to indeed take off in the UK remain to be seen.

 

 

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