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The Indoor Positioning System Era

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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.