Getting a fix on indoor location

With companies looking to replicate what GPS for an indoor environment, IMS Research believes that several methods are likely to be successful as research and development heats up among many companies.


Locating a smartphone in an outdoors environment is straightforward, with the inclusion of GPS technology in more than 90 percent of smartphones providing this functionality. However, GPS becomes less useful in built-up areas and can be useless indoors. A range of solutions are vying to replicate what GPS does outdoors in an indoor environment, from Wi-Fi to Bluetooth to ‘terrestrial’ GPS, plus many others - which one is likely to be successful? IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., feels the answer will not simply be just ‘one.’

Indoor location enables a number of exciting applications that may previously have been considered impossible, for both the consumer and the venue owner. Not only can it provide analytics, tracking footfall and understanding consumer behavior, but also improve the shopping experience, helping the consumer to find a particular store or product. Whilst these examples are useful, the real benefit and revenue generation is likely to arrive in the shape of advertising. 

Bluetooth in Nokia’s HAIP variety can provide accuracies claimed to be less than one meter, making it suitable for ‘aisle level’ positioning. NextNav is beginning to roll out a technology described as ‘terrestrial GPS’ in the United States, utilizing transmitters based on the ground, instead of satellites, and the existing GPS chipsets found in many smartphones. Other solutions include the IMES system in Japan and cellular-based solutions from companies such as Path Intelligence

Profile photo of Alex West, a Connectivity and Location research director at IMS Research. Courtesy: IMS ResearchWhilst the roll out of commercial solutions has only recently begun, Wi-Fi has, to date, been the primary technology used. “Its high penetration in smartphones, combined with an existing infrastructure of access points, in venues such as shopping malls and airports etc., means minimal additional investment is required to support some level of positioning solution,” noted Alex West, Connectivity and Location research director at IMS Research. “For this reason, a range of different companies from Google, to Qualcomm and CSR, to Qubulus, all have solutions incorporating Wi-Fi.” Current location accuracies through Wi-Fi make it suitable for ‘store-level’ positioning but less so for ‘product’ or ‘aisle-level’, although IMS Research forecasts that consumers exposure to store-level accuracy will drive demand for aisle/product-level accuracy. 

In reality, it is unlikely that one solution will meet all requirements, and amongst recent announcements is CSR’s SiRFusion platform, which utilizes not only Wi-Fi, but also cellular and MEMS sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes, to provide a hybrid solution. MEMS sensors, which are becoming increasingly common in smartphones, are expected to play a bigger part in positioning, not only improving accuracy levels but also aiding in cutting down power consumption.

Other leading IC suppliers, including Broadcom and Qualcomm, have announced solutions incorporating these technologies, and Bluetooth in some cases, with the necessary software. As such a more accurate indoor positioning service is expected to be included on smartphones over the next 12 months, and is expected to provide the platform for the many apps and services that are being developed utilizing indoor location.

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