parsons edGoogle has been very busy mapping the world for the past decade, which is something that has become more apparent every time they add a new Google Maps feature. Chief among the latest advancements is their effort to map interiors as well as to facilitate indoor navigation once you’re inside. Informed Infrastructure editor Matt Ball spoke with Ed Parsons, geographer in residence at Google, about the technologies the company has deployed as well as the overall promise of the indoor location market.

I2: The whole area of indoor location is hugely exciting, and it probably always has been, but we’re on the cusp of a number of new technologies that will make it a lot easier to both map and pinpoint our indoor positions.

Parsons: From a mass market and consumer push, it’s going to be one of the next big battlegrounds. There’s a lot of talk about 3D maps, with the new version of Apple Maps that allows you to fly around. That’s really an evolutionary step above what Google Earth gave you, so it’s a little bit exciting, but it’s not going to have that big of an impact on people. Whereas maps of all those indoor places that you visit (offices, schools, universities, railroad stations, shops) will make a big difference. I think indoor location is going to be very interesting.

I2: I’ve seen a lot of the interior images that Google has recently captured, that essentially allow you to walk around a store with navigation like StreetView. Were all those done as an offshoot of StreetView data capture, using a 3D spherical camera?

Parsons: We’ve taken a very pragmatic approach to this. We’ve not gone down the BIM, IFC approach to model indoor spaces in any sort of metric or precise settings, because the industry standards aren’t really there yet. There’s a lot of progress being made, but it will still take a while for that to become mainstream.

We’ve taken two pragmatic approaches. The first approach, and the one that is most visible is StreetView Indoors, taking panoramic images of restaurants and shops, and making those available to business owners to highlight their space. We do that through contract photographers. If you’re a keen amateur photographer or a professional interested in doing extra business, we show you how to do it with just your digital SLR and a tripod, and you sell your services to local businesses. We then make the navigable image available as part of a business search result.

The other approach, and something that I think is more useful, is that we go indoors and map spaces using mobile phones. The prerequisite is that the space that we’re going to map has complete WiFi coverage. We can go out then with a special app that runs on an Android phone and it maps the interior space from a WiFi point of view. In the same way we can locate you using cell towers, we can locate you using WiFi. What we then do is compare that interior model from a WiFi point of view with plans that the facility provides us, and then join those two together. Ultimately, that allows you to wander around an airport or store, and it shows you where you are to a 2-3 meter accuracy. You can use that in most of the major airports in the United States, Canada and Europe now, as well as big department stores and shopping malls.

I think that’s a very pragmatic approach, with the main spaces that people will visit. These places already have WiFi there so we don’t need to install any infrastructure, and these places also have interior plans that we can use. It’s a relatively easy win.

I2: Is the navigation indoors seamless in the Google Maps application?

Parsons: It’s part of the Maps client on Android phones or tablets. You can imagine navigating from the offices to the airport, and when you zoom into enough of a level, you see the interior view of the airport, and the blue dot that represents your location follows you from the outside to the inside of the building. You can then move around the building, and the blue dot follows you around. 

It’s accurate enough to be able to tell what floor you are on. There’s an additional menu that pops up on screen to allow you to change levels within a building. You can navigate around and find out where stores are, and where the gate is that you’re flying from.

My favorite example is IKEA who have provided all its floor plans. I always thought that the whole point of IKEA was that you got a bit lost and wandered the whole store. But, they were quite happy to provide us those plans, and you can navigate to the various departments. It doesn’t give you turn-by-turn directions, but allows you to know where you are and what’s around you, to provide context that is useful.

I2: The level of precision to do things tied to inventory is probably the most exciting aspect of indoor location. There are some applications like mapping libraries and getting to the exact location of the book that you want that are really interesting.

Parsons: That level of precision is still not possible without installing additional equipment within the building. That’s the kind of thing that we’ve shied away from doing at this time, because it’s so difficult to scale. Clearly, you can do precise indoor positioning using ultra-wideband technology (UWB), and the sort of things that Ubisense does, down to the level of precision to find a specific tool within a factory setting. That’s a huge business, with a lot of opportunity there, but that’s just not the space that we’re in. 

I2: The Ubisense example is a good one as they’ve really struck on a nice niche for the application of precise indoor position. Why is it taking so long to for broader indoor mapping solutions?

Parsons: I think what’s taking us so long, ties to the way that GIS people always seem to operate. We’re always trying to solve all of the problems at the beginning. We need to locate you to a degree of precision in any building, therefore we need to create detailed models of every building, and we need to agree on how to do that. We’re going to be waiting another decade before we’ll actually agree how to do that.

I think the approaches that Ubisense, and we have taken, meet market needs that can be achieved readily. We obviously don’t have one universal solution for doing this, but these approaches both solve people’s immediate needs.

I2: The size of the mapping effort is also a bit daunting. You’ve mapped more than 10,000 interiors now, and others are doing similar work.

Parsons: We’re doing it, Microsoft are doing it, and I’m sure other people will start doing it. To meet that mass market, it’s really an obvious opportunity. All the navigation systems that we’ve built over the past ten years or so have stopped as soon as you’ve gone indoors. We spend more than 70% of our time indoors, and we’re missing all of that opportunity to provide more information and answer people’s questions. We need to get much better at that.

I2: Do you have a sense of the size of the market? I’ve run into that figure for percentage of time indoors, and I’ve also noted that the actual land mass of the island of Manhattan is something like 1/6 of its actual square footage due to the dense indoor space.

Parsons: I’m sure that there are a lot of those figures. If you just think about it, in the developed world most of the economic activity happens indoors. It’s happening in offices, in retail, in hospitals and universities. There are lots of potential applications, and you could recreate the entire GIS industry again, and probably on orders of magnitude larger, generating solutions that work indoors.

I2: As you indicated, it also ties into the convergence of GIS, CAD and BIM, and that whole modeling world.

Parsons: That’s an area that I’m still frustrated about. I remember in my Autodesk days, over ten years ago in the early days of BIM, we were working to get agreement around IFC, and getting people to submit proper plans with information in addition to CAD drawings. We’re still far away from having that level of detail for every new build, let alone for all the historic buildings that we need to deal with.

There will always be a need for more pragmatic solutions that apply just enough intelligence to make it easy as an application add-on. At some point in the future, you may be able to have BIM models of everywhere, but I think that’s a long way off.

I2: Precise indoor positioning seems to be a real research and development opportunity. What you’re doing with WiFi mapping is great, and there are others looking at Bluetooth, and even television signals.

Parsons: Different applications will have different precision needs. There’s the generic positioning where WiFi is fine, and then there are applications where RFID or other forms of beacon technology are appropriate, and then there are the UWB-based solutions where you install those in particular types of buildings where you need to track things precisely. I think we’ll end up with a hybrid positioning model, where different technologies give you more or less precise positioning, and you’ll pick one you need for your application.

There won’t be a universal one, because there’s no equivalent to GPS that has universal applicability. It just doesn’t exist. Even with additional global navigation system of systems (GNSS) solutions like Galileo, they’re really not useful indoors. You’ll end up with a hybrid of different positioning technologies, and as a mobile application developer you’ll need to pick and choose what’s appropriate for your market.

I2: We talked about the interiors that you’ve collected. Is it a worldwide effort that is happening simultaneously, or is there a specific market that is dominating the collection?

Parsons: To be honest, we’re kind of following the money. It’s North America and Western Europe, and we’ll expand as we can. There is that prerequisite that the building we want to map has near universal WiFi coverage, and the owners of the building are willing to make the plans available to us to ingest.

One of the areas of complexity from our point of view is that what we’re dealing with are private spaces now, rather than the public space that we’ve mapped outside. You immediately have to go into much more diligent legal processes to make this information available. It’s always going to be something that is more complex than mapping the outside. Mapping airports, shopping malls and universities there’s less of an issue, because they all want people to be able to find their way around.

When we get to mapping office complexes and hospitals, it’s going to be more difficult with privacy issues and whose space is this, and do we want to make it available. Ultimately, the owner of the business has the final say. You can’t go inside and map with WiFi and have access to their floor plans unless they are willing to provide those.

I2: The actual drawings is a nice touch, because that directly ties to both ownership and liability, because it’s their drawing.

Parsons: Exactly, it’s their drawing and as you know with your background, CAD drawings come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. It’s still quite a manual process to adjust those and make them useful.

I2: There are a number of new companies that are going after specific retailers, and there are quite a number of them that have alliances with chains to map precisely indoors. Is that a growing trend and something you have your eye on?

Parsons: I think that you’re going to see a lot of those companies, with a good deal of innovation to try different ways of solving the problems. The advantage that we perceive that we have is integration with the whole mobile experience, where you don’t have to open another application or download a file in order to navigate inside a building. It’s all on the same application, and it automatically shifts to navigate inside the building.

There are a lot of different opportunities if you want to take different approaches and develop different apps. This is really early days, and there is plenty of opportunity to take different approaches.

I2: Do you have any projections in terms of a timeline when we’ll make some major advancements?

Parsons: It’s taken us ten years to get to where we are now in mapping the outside, with the start of Google Maps in 2005. It’s hard work, and it’s going to take a lot of hardware shifts and innovations to make it above and beyond where we are today. We’ve got the low hanging fruits with airports, shopping malls and railway stations with details that people can make use of today.

It’s a huge area of opportunity with a number of solutions that can build upon this interior mapping platform. The idea of mapping the inventory of a store, like you said, or for a doctor to know where physical records are, or for location of tools in a manufacturing setting, all of those sorts of applications are spatial technology, but in a much larger scale than we’ve seen yet. I think there are going to be many years of innovation and new exciting ways of developing these sorts of applications.

This is perhaps the most exciting parts of the business, and it’s not something that mainstream technology press have picked up on yet, but I’m sure it will be an area of strong coverage in the future.

I2: One of the areas where it gets really interesting is with the idea of smart objects, where the objects knows where they are and what they are.

Parsons: It is interesting with the overlap with the Internet of Things, where every device will be connected to the Internet, and other devices can discover them. The thoughts about networks of things that talk to each other is an interesting overlay on the whole indoor mapping space, because you’re mapping indoor space for people to make use of, but there will be whole categories of machines that want to access those indoor maps as well.