Technology

Map Apps: The Race to Fill in the Blanks


Visitors to the sprawling Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., often grab one of the fold-up maps available at the entrances to the four-story, city-block-size store. Without one, locating a particular genre can be “daunting,” says Darin Sennett, the store’s director of strategic projects. Since April, tech-savvy customers can download a smartphone app instead. Type in the title you’re looking for and check a box to indicate your starting point, and the app displays the quickest route along with turn-by-turn directions. Thanks to the app, “people aren’t using their phones to check Amazon (AMZN) to see if there’s a better deal,” says Sennett. “They’re using them to look at more of our books.”

Just as MapQuest kicked off a rush to provide street-by-street navigation for Web surfers a decade ago, the race is now on to map the Great Indoors. Startups such as Aisle411, Micello, and Meridian, which worked on the Powell’s app, are creating detailed digital portraits of shopping malls, airports, arenas, and other places that were once big blank spots. On Nov. 29, Google (GOOG) introduced maps for more than 20 airports, hundreds of Home Depots (HD), and every Ikea store in the U.S., all of which are now available on the search giant’s Android operating system for smartphones. “This market is getting real,” says Jeff Lewis, co-founder of one-year-old Guidebook, which has created maps for about 900 museums, industry conferences, and other clients.

Indoor mapping enthusiasts envision apps that pull up relevant information on many everyday journeys: to the roulette tables at a casino, to a Psych 101 class on campus, or to the right conference room in a labyrinthine office. In November, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) released a trip-planning iPhone app that shows the shortest path to complete your shopping list at select locations. As systems get better at determining where you are, stores will be able to beam discounts to shoppers as they go, perhaps offering 10 percent off pretzels for those who linger in front of the beer case. “Ultimately, you’ll be able to follow your phone to your seat in Madison Square Garden or to find the pair of jeans you’ve been looking for at the Gap (GPS) in one of our malls,” says John Batistich, director of marketing for the Westfield Group (WDC:AU), owner of 124 malls around the world.

At this point, the process for getting a building’s floor plan online is far from elegant. Mapping companies ask venues to send in whatever information they have—architectural drawings, engineering files, photos—and then have programmers create a digital, clickable diagram. The process is very labor-intensive, and generally done only for big, well-trafficked sites like airports. Google hopes to make indoor mapping possible even for smaller locations with a free online tool called Floor Plans, which accepts documents from building owners and generates a map. “We’re just getting started,” says Steve Lee, a director of product management at Google. “Our eventual goal is for any user of Google Maps to be able to go into any public space and be able to find their way around.”

Micello, a Sunnyvale (Calif.) startup, has digitized 8,500 locations, including 100 airports. The results are usually embedded into apps offered by the venues themselves. While its software does much of the work automatically, Micello also ships a building’s documents to “mapping factories” in India, where workers manually finish the job. The startup charges $50 per month per map, or less for companies with more than 25 locations. Since Google’s November announcement, “It seems like every big store, university, business campus, and hospital group is working on a mobile app, and a map is going to be a standard part of that,” says Micello founder Ankit Agarwal.

Even tougher than digitizing a map, however, is figuring out where someone is on it. It’s easy to do outside: GPS satellites can pinpoint a phone to within a few yards of its location. But GPS requires a direct line of sight to a satellite, so it often doesn’t work in urban canyons or indoors. To help fill in the gaps, Skyhook Wireless hired an army of students and retirees a decade ago to drive the world’s roads in vans laden with electronic-sniffing equipment. The result was a database of the location of Wi-Fi and cellular signals. By using that database, or similar ones from Google or Apple (AAPL), a phone can usually determine its location to within 30 feet.

That accuracy suffers quite a bit indoors, where there are far more obstructions. To keep reliability at 30 feet requires hiring someone to walk every square foot of a location three or four times, says Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan. They’re instructed to stop every few feet, manually tap their location on a map of the venue on their smartphone or tablet, and then spin around so their device can register all the signals in proximity. Two years ago, Morgan got a surprise call from the Homeland Security Dept., which wondered why a Skyhook contractor had been seen doing this strange dance in various U.S. airports.

Many of the applications merchants dream of—like letting someone order a hot dog and a beer at a basketball game from their smartphone, then sending a server directly to their seat—require accuracy to within 10 feet. Computer scientists in Nokia’s (NOK) Research Center have been working on a new approach that uses Bluetooth instead of Wi-Fi for greater accuracy and longer battery life. The downside is that building owners would need to sprinkle small, dish-like devices across ceilings—a tall order given the unproven return on investment. Nokia is betting that costs will fall as Bluetooth gear gets integrated into Wi-Fi routers, says Nokia researcher Fabio Belloni. In the meantime, Broadcom (BRCM) is the first chipmaker to customize its chips for Wi-Fi tracking, according to Don Fuchs, director of the company’s GPS unit. “We’re showing indoor accuracy of 5 to 10 feet,” he says.

For now, even mapping fans are proceeding cautiously. Anyone is free to map the outdoors, but retailers and building owners want control over their indoor data. Westfield, the mall operator, says it is in talks with Google about how to share revenues from ads that are generated based on a shopper’s location. In August, it also unveiled an ambitious project that shows the potential of wiping the final blank spots from digital maps. At its flagship Bondi Junction mall in Sydney, Australia, Westfield installed cameras at each parking spot in the garage to record autos’ license plates. When shoppers type their license number into Westfield’s smartphone app, they get step-by-step directions back to their car. “We have plans to roll it out, but it is quite a large capital outlay,” says Batistich.

The bottom line: Businesses are experimenting with indoor maps that make the retail experience more efficient. Location accuracy is still a problem.

Burrows is a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, based in San Francisco.

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