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Google takes Maps indoors, but challenges remain

Users want more maps but businesses won't provide maps until there are more users.

Low adoption and insufficient research has slowed the movement of Google Maps indoors, a Google software engineer said today at the Indoor Positioning and Indoor Navigation conference held at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Google wants to make indoor maps “as solid and reliable as outdoors,” said Waleed Kadous, who leads Google’s indoor map acquisition efforts. However, while handset technology is ready for indoor maps, killer apps and improved location detection in unusual spaces are still needed to make indoor maps mainstream, he said.

Google has launched indoor maps in eight countries: US, UK, France, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland. It has maps for more than 10,000 venues, including malls, airports and museums. Google has also released tools for businesses in several countries to upload their own maps.

Similar to the outdoor version of Google Maps, users can search for specific types of locations indoors (eg. coffee) and then get turn-by-turn directions to that spot from their current location. Unlike outside, indoor maps can track location across multiple floors in one building. Google is starting to collect indoor images similar to Street View, he said.

However, gathering indoor maps presents unique challenges compared to outdoor because it requires acquiring building maps from building owners and because GPS coverage is frequently poor inside. Location can be triangulated without GPS by using multiple Wi-Fi hotspots. Kadous estimated that Maps can currently estimate a user’s location inside within 10 metres.

A major issue for indoor maps “is we haven’t yet reached the point where people really know about us,” Kadous said. It’s a “chicken-and-the-egg” problem where users won’t use indoor maps until more locations are supported, while businesses won’t provide maps of their locations until they see greater consumer demand, he said.

Adding to the adoption issue, some manufacturers don’t want to include critical equipment like gyro sensors in their phones due the cost and drain on mobile phone batteries, Kadous said.

Google is investing greatly to expand its number of indoor maps, Kadous said. The coverage issue may also be improved by making it easier for users to provide location data, he said. One solution may be to tap crowdsourcing and generate a map based on data from multiple users, he said.

More research is required to overcome technical issues that arise from the design and layout of buildings, Kadous said. Current academic papers tackle ideal situations and not complications including multiple floors, inconsistent Wi-Fi coverage and phones with poorly calibrated sensors, he said.

Kadous has yet to see the “killer app” that will drive usage of indoor maps. Navigation was the killer app for GPS outdoors, but may not be the most compelling use for indoor location services, he said.

Navigation is useful when driving because it’s cumbersome to use paper maps and difficult to stop and ask for directions, he said. By contrast, indoor locations like malls usually have good signage and it’s easy to find someone to ask for directions, he said.

A wrong turn outside can be much more costly than inside, Kadous said. “Think about this way: How hard is it to do a U-turn walking versus driving?”

More interesting applications for indoor location might be an app that provides the location of friends in a mall, or one that can provide the location of a particular item in a store, he said. A study of user behaviours could help develop more ideas, he said.

Kadous acknowledged possible privacy concerns with location tracking indoors, including businesses seeking to learn customers’ locations in a building. The concerns have led some to propose laws banning the practice.

“Have we received requests from businesses for [location data]?” asked Kadous. “Yes.”

However, Google has “taken steps to safeguard users’ privacy,” he said. All of Google’s indoor location services rely on anonymous data, and all calculations occur on the user’s device, he said. With apps like Latitude, users can choose with whom they share their location, he said.

“But this technology is designed deliberately for privacy as much as possible."

While indoor maps is not yet available in Australia, Google has steadily added features to Google Maps here in recent months, including cycling and public transportation directions and a tool allowing Australians to make their own maps.

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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