Geotagged at the Nokia gate5 office, Invalidenstrasse, Berlin (52.53105,13.38521)

A First Step Towards Indoor Navigation. Literally

The problems started the moment GPS became a commodity and made the transition from the car to the mobile device. Nowadays, GPS can be found in a vast range of smartphones and navigation is possible without being confined to your car. Of course, it's not always a great experience. GPS works best when there's a direct line of sight to the satellites whizzing around over your head and there are times when you just can't get a GPS lock. A-GPS was devised to help with such situations, allowing your location enabled to device to take advantage of a variety of other sensors, such as cell tower and wifi triangulation technologies.

But even then, GPS just doesn't work indoors most of the time and indoor location and routing has become something of the Holy Grail for navigation technology vendors. Granted there have been lots of technologies developed which use non A-GPS technologies such as RFID and other near field sensors. But so far these all require a not insignificant investment to install and require specialist devices to take advantage of; none of which are as ubiquitous as the combination of smart phone and GPS.

Maybe we're looking too deeply at this challenge. Take a category of location that lots of people go to, such as shopping malls, where GPS usually isn't available, and map each mall to a high degree of accuracy, both in terms of the layout of the mall and in terms of the stores and concessions in that mall. Add in key features, such as multiple levels, staircases, escalators and lifts and you can build a spatial map of the mall which doesn't need sensors. Simply tell your phone where you are and where you want to go and you can provide simplistic directions, without the need for GPS.

FastMall - Mall Overview

It's obvious when you stop to think about it.

Whilst it's not the voice guided, constantly updated, turn by turn navigation that we're used to in conventional satnav, as a technology it's simple to implement and FastMall, an iPhone app, has done just that.

So how does it work? Like most location based apps, FastMall taps into your iPhone's onboard GPS allowing you to search for malls near to you (as a side note, this location based search isn't geofenced at all, searching for malls around me in Berlin returns a huge list of European malls). Select the mall you're either at or are going to and you download the mall's map and data to your device. At this stage your need for GPS or even for a cellular signal is over. The locations of each store in the mall (even including toilets, staircases and escalators) are now on the phone. Navigating to the store you need is elegantly simplistic; simply tell the app where you want to go and tell the app where you are and you get a (literally) step by step guide to reach your destination.

FastMall - Navigation Setup

Let's take an example of a mall I know reasonably well; the Westfield Valley Fair mall in Santa Clara, California. I've parked my car in the car park next to Macy's and I want to get to the Apple Store. Assuming I've downloaded the mall map data (and this is in the US so there's no guarantee I can do this in the car park as this is AT&T territory) I simply search for the Apple Store as my destination and then search for Macy's as my starting point and I'm presented with precise walking directions on how to get there.

  1. Exit Macy's
  2. Walk until you see Nine West and go straight
  3. Walk until you see Marc Ecko Cut & Sew and turn slight left
  4. Walk until you see Jessica Mcclintock and go straight
  5. Walk until you see MAC Cosmetics and go straight
  6. Walk straight until you see your destination on the right
  7. Enjoy. You have reached Apple Store

FastMall - You Have Reached Your Destination

I'll forgive the app's designers the slightly stilted phrasing in the directions but overall the experience is simple and seamless. It doesn't take a vast leap of the imagination to see this sort of hybrid A-GPS and spatial map technique extended to other types of location, such as railway stations, conference centres and other pedestrian areas.

Now yes, I know this is iPhone only, yes I know this needs a high end smartphone and yes, this would really benefit from being integrated into an overall maps and navigation experience. But it's a significant step towards real world, usable indoor navigation. Sometimes the simple approach outpaces the technological sensor driven approach we've become used to. Expect to see this sort of technology coming your phone in the not too distant future.

Gary Gale

I'm Gary ... a Husband, Father, CTO at Kamma, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user