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    Location, location, location

    The promise and potential of indoor GPS

    If you've ever spent what felt like hours searching for your car in a parking garage, or gotten lost in a hospital, you already understand the case for indoor GPS.


    The traditional GPS that we're accustomed to using outdoors answers two questions that have bedeviled human beings since the dawn of time: Where exactly am I right now? and How do I get to where I want to be? Indoor navigation services bring the answers to those questions in from the rain, using sensor-equipped Internet of Things (IoT) devices to establish position in any environment, and to plot the best course through it.


    So far, retail has been the obvious use case for this technology: Indoor wayfinding is already directing shoppers to the products they're looking for. But indoor GPS has other applications as well. What follow are some of the more intriguing of them.

    What's interesting nearby?

    Outdoor GPS revolutionized travel by dramatically reducing the chances of your getting lost outside. Indoor GPS reduces the chances of your getting lost inside, of course, but it also makes the time we spend inside richer.


    Consider the museum experience. Using indoor GPS, a guided audio tour could fine-tune its presentation on the basis of a visitor's engagement with the exhibits. Did she just spend hours looking at Monets and Renoirs? When she wanders into the American Wing, then, it might make sense for the commentary to direct her towards American artists influenced by those Impressionists.


    There are plenty of applications for this technology outside the museum world. A university can enrich its orientation process with navigation-based guidance to the resources that will matter most to a new student based on his course of study, as revealed via an opt-in app.


    Trade show attendees can use navigation to find the exhibitors who interest them the most.


    And in the office, indoor positioning can simplify everything from onboarding to the search for available desks or conference rooms. No more reserving a meeting space via a buggy desktop program. Now an indoor GPS system integrated with the building's lighting apparatus will ping your device and the devices of your relevant colleagues, telling you where to go. And, of course, it will tell you how to get there, which can be no small question on a corporate campus.

    Who can help me?

    Hospitals constantly page staff members to assist patients: In fact, as of just two years ago, 85 percent of hospitals still used 90s-style pagers to alert doctors, with all the inefficiency that implies. With indoor positioning, a hospital can dispatch personnel who are qualified, available, and nearby — and do so fast, saving lives.

    Positioning can also improve safety by identifying unusual behavior. At a sporting event, are too many people suddenly clustering where people usually don't cluster at all? Maybe there's an altercation underway between rival groups of fans.

    Is a man in a subway station violating the typical patterns that govern how people group themselves on a platform? Maybe he's dazed, and needs help before he falls into the tracks. The system can dispatch professionals to help him — and guide them precisely to the right point. The positioning system might even pause the train that's about to arrive, removing another hazardous variable from the equation.

    As we've mentioned, retailers have been early adopters of indoor positioning tech, using it to help guide shoppers. But that technology is more than just a tool for facilitating self-service. It will also make it easier to provide help to shoppers who need it — a key factor given that customer service will be the differentiator that will save brick-and-mortar retail from the online-shopping revolution. The trends driving the evolution of the shopping mall, including more emphasis on the sort of technology-enhanced real-life experiences that aren't available via Amazon, will only make positioning tech more relevant in brick-and-mortar.

    What are my visitors doing?

    Indoor positioning offers a way to conduct a running time-and-motion study of the way in which real people move through a space. Just as two-way traveler data helps modern GPS applications improve routing for each new driver joining traffic, indoor positioning data can establish a virtuous circle that helps visitors take the best path at that moment through airport departure terminals and hotel lobbies.


    It also opens up the possibility of crowd-sourcing feedback. Imagine being a building manager and having the ability to offer a “shake your phone to send feedback about this building" function to mobile users on your property. You'll gain deep insights into the repairs you need to make and the undocumented hazards you need to eliminate. Your repair staff will get instant positioning info and key details into the bargain.

    Where's my valuable equipment?

    Location services also simplify and optimize asset tracking. Up until now, logistics operations have typically used different systems to track inventory, on the one hand, and movable equipment like forklifts, on the other. But the new indoor navigation technology means that anything that moves can now carry a low-cost position beacon. That beacon will communicate with other beacons integrated into lighting fixtures, creating a mesh network that facilitates "track & trace" of objects via a dashboard. The system's data-crunching capabilities, meanwhile, will give asset managers and other professionals answers to crucial questions.


    Imagine, for example, a large hospital, in which diagnostic equipment rolls around to different rooms and even wings. A system like the one we're discussing will tell a manager, nurse, or doctor where the closest unused EKG machine happens to be at the moment, and the shortest path through the hospital maze to get to it. It will also produce usage maps, so that administrators can ensure that shifts start with most of the hospital's EKG machines in the places where they tend most to be needed. The system will also collect temperature and other data about these valuable instruments, so that the hospital can stay a step ahead when it comes to maintenance.


    We're so used to outdoor GPS that it's hard to imagine that only recently the street grids of unfamiliar cities were intimidating things, necessitating stops at filling stations for directions and wrestling matches with paper maps. Indoor GPS is still new to us, but it won't be for long. Soon enough we'll be able to see how it's transformed how we live no less than its outdoor cousin has.

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