Skip to Content

The Indoor Positioning System Era

You are here. Almost.
April 27, 2012

GPS rules your life. At least, it rules mine. Without the GPS on my iPhone, I don’t know what I’d do. I have dim prehistoric memories of something called a “map,” and a hazy image of a gas station attendant pointing off into the distance.

The point is, GPS is a technology that has transformed our lives; entire books have been written about the tech and its implications. And yet, in the hedonic treadmill that is our relationship with technology, don’t you still find something… missing? Don’t you wish your GPS was, actually, a little bit… better?

Sebastian Anthony over at Extreme Tech has a thoughtful take on the emerging world of what he calls IPS, or indoor positing technology. IPS isn’t just hyper-refined GPS. Actually, it’s a whole different category of technology, relying on different aspects of our infrastructure to help locate you within a space. Different companies are cobbling together different approaches to IPS, Anthony notes. Google triangulates your position based on the strength of the signal you receive from various hotspots. Nokia opts for a form of Bluetoothy triangulation, while there’s a Broadcom chip that uses NFC. Infrared and “acoustic analysis” has even been experimented with, reportedly. (Bats, meanwhile, echolocate.)

The first time I saw IPS at work, it was at a birthday celebration iRobot was throwing for itself in New York. The tech involved, I seem to recall, was a little tank-like robot that actually could build the map of a building as it explored it, and I had assumed that tech this cool would remain with the military, rather than consumers, for some time. That assumption was blown up, though, when Google pushed out its Google Maps Indoors for Android a few months back.

Not only is this tech ready for consumers, but it’s getting good–fast. The video below shows the strides that Nokia has taken with the technology, for instance. (Nokia reportedly reached out to some 30 companies to try to set standards on indoor navigational tech.) 

Nokia envisions leveraging the tech for location-based games, among other things. Sebastian Anthony, for his part, is wearing his techno-optimism hat tightly, in his musings on how IPS is for everyone. For data junkies: “IPS could tell you how many hours you spend in bed, commuting, in the office, and on the toilet.” For social junkies: “IPS could track where and when you are most likely to use Facebook or Twitter, and tell you which locations are conducive to happy (or sad) status updates.” For business: “If IPS detects that you are near a store with a special offer, your phone could alert you.”

My own feeling is that most of the uses people are envisioning for IPS are either achievable by GPS, highly niche, or outright silly. (I don’t need my phone to tell me any tweets I write from the toilet are bound to be sad.) Most people will just be happy, I think, if it helps them find the Foot Locker a tad more quickly at the shopping mall. 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

What to know about this autumn’s covid vaccines

New variants will pose a challenge, but early signs suggest the shots will still boost antibody responses.

DeepMind’s cofounder: Generative AI is just a phase. What’s next is interactive AI.

“This is a profound moment in the history of technology,” says Mustafa Suleyman.

Human-plus-AI solutions mitigate security threats

With the right human oversight, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can help keep business and customer data secure

Next slide, please: A brief history of the corporate presentation

From million-dollar slide shows to Steve Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone, a bit of show business never hurt plain old business.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.