Indoor location positioning looks poised to be the next hot mobile service with its ability to enable smarter mobile offers and more accurate local searches. Google has an early lead but an analysis of patent filings points to a number of technology companies fighting for supremacy in this emerging space.
It has always been difficult to accurately track a person's location indoors. Since GPS is a satellite-based system, devices require a "line of sight" to satellites to operate. GPS generally does not function indoors and is particularly weak in large, enclosed spaces like shopping malls, museums and big offices.
One solution is indoor positioning, which works by analyzing radio signals from cellular antennae and/or Wi-Fi hotspots or by tracking a device's movement through sensors such as gyroscopes and compasses. Google recently brought indoor positioning out of the labs with the late November release of a "My Location" feature in Google Maps. Google says the feature, which is currently only available on Android phones, can track a user's location within several meters in select malls and airports.
Though Google was the first to debut indoor positioning, other companies have been developing similar technology for years. A new report from technology research firm Grizzly Analytics rated five companies (Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Qualcomm and Research In Motion) as having "mature" indoor positioning research. The New York-based firm ranked the companies by the breadth of their research and the number of years they've been working on indoor positioning, said founder Bruce Krulwich in an interview.
Of the five leading companies, Mr. Krulwich sees Microsoft and Nokia as the most likely to challenge Google in indoor positioning. He expects Microsoft and Nokia to launch a service sometime in 2012, perhaps tagged to Microsoft's "Tango" Windows Phone update. Both companies have significant experience in indoor positioning. Microsoft has researched how to determine location using special radio beacons as well as by analyzing Wi-Fi signal strength. It has also experimented with what Mr. Krulwich calls movement tracking. That involves tracking a device as it moves away from a known location, such as a door to a building (which can be pinpointed via GPS because it is outdoors).
Beyond its research, Microsoft holds granted patents in indoor positioning. Mr. Krulwich counted at least five Microsoft patents related to determining phone location using wireless access points, radio beacons, device movements and other radio signals.
Nokia's indoor positioning work is equally sophisticated with patents going back to at least 2006. In September 2006, Nokia filed a patent on "Direction of Arrival" detection. That strategy leverages ultra-wideband (UWB) radio technology to estimate location. In fall 2007, Nokia also filed three patents related to determining location via Wi-Fi signal strength.
Over the years, Nokia has publicized some of its indoor positioning research, such as in this 2009 video and this Nov. 2010 demonstration at its Nokia World show. In April 2011, Nokia released a demo video that shows an integrated outdoor/indoor navigation system. In November, in response to Google's Google Maps update, Nokia stepped up publicity about its research and revealed it is now using Bluetooth beacons instead of the older ultra-wideband technology.
Given their resources, Mr. Krulwich believes that if Microsoft and Nokia pool their mapping assets, as they have pledged to do in upcoming Windows Phone devices, they could offer the industry's strongest indoor positioning service. "Both have made such investments in this area, they would have a leg up if they can get a combined system out to market," said Mr. Krulwich.
Mr. Krulwich was also struck by the indoor positioning research conducted by wireless chipmaker Qualcomm and BlackBerry maker RIM. Since 2010, Qualcomm has filed at least eight patents related to indoor positioning, including work touching on Wi-Fi hotspot triangulation and motion tracking via sensors. Mr. Krulwich believes Qualcomm is investing in indoor positioning because it plans to incorporate indoor location features in its cellphone chips – perhaps motion tracking abilities in its sensor processing chips and signal triangulation in its radio frequency (RF) chips.
RIM also has a number of indoor positioning patents. Mr. Krulwich counted at least eight, including five granted patents, filed between 2005 and this year. Like other companies, RIM's research looks at location derived from Wi-Fi hotspot and cellular antennae signals. It also covers mobile services based on indoor positioning, such as location-based reminders and location-based device control. Unlike Google and Nokia, RIM is not closely associated with indoor positioning because it has yet to launch these features on its BlackBerrys. "The question is whether RIM will get them to market and in a way that will complement their [core strengths]" noted Mr. Krulwich.
Of the five indoor positioning leaders, Google may actually have the fewest patents. Mr. Krulwich examines just two Google patents in his report and both are only patent applications. One concerns the collection of Wi-Fi data to approximate phone location while the other looks at ways of deducing location by sifting through user activity data such as calendar entries and location-based search history. (Google's 'My Location' maps feature appears to be based on the triangulation of cellular antenna and Wi-Fi hotspot signals — a relatively generic approach that uses standard device capabilities, said Mr. Krulwich.)
Despite its lack of patents, Google is clearly interested in this field. Its research division has published several articles on indoor positioning and the company has also funded academic research on the topic.
Google will gain additional resources through its (pending) acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Mr. Krulwich calls Motorola's indoor positioning patent portfolio "considerable" though most of it was established years ago. In his report, Mr. Krulwich identified six Motorola patents, some filed as early as 2001. The patents cover Bluetooth-based indoor positioning as well as positioning derived from radio signals and light modulation.
The most significant Motorola patents, however, deal with inertial navigation, a kind of motion tracking that utilizes sensors to measure movement from a known location. When Motorola filed its inertial navigation patents (around 2002), those sensors were rarely found in cellphones. They have since become commonplace, though, and Mr. Krulwich believes this approach could be lucrative for Google once it finishes its Motorola acquisition. Mr. Krulwich also thinks inertial navigation could be a more accurate way to determine location than radio signals since signals can be distorted by a user's surroundings.
And what of Apple, the other major power in mobile operating systems and devices? The iPhone and iPad maker appears to have little intellectual property in indoor positioning despite having introduced location-based reminders in its iOS 5 operating system update. Apple did file two patent applications in 2009 that relate to the logging and analysis of a device's location using Wi-Fi, cellular and radio station signals but Mr. Krulwich noted that these approaches are similar to ones outlined by Microsoft and other companies. "Apple's research in this area is fairly weak – surprisingly so," said Mr. Krulwich.
Apple may be developing something noteworthy in secret. It has acquired several location technology companies since 2009, including Placebase, Poly9 and C3 Technologies. Apple has long been rumoured to be working on its own mapping and navigation so it can replace Google's services on its devices.
Mr. Krulwich expects all these companies, along with Samsung, Sony and others, to refine their indoor positioning offerings, either through additional research or by acquiring one of the few startups specializing in this area. Indoor positioning offers too many advantages for mobile technology companies to pass up, he contends.
Once the technology becomes common, users will be able to locate friends in malls and museums; merchants will be able to target shoppers within their stores; and advertisers will be able to serve up hyper-relevant offers to consumers. For technology companies, that could mean increased device sales, revenue-share deals and marketing partnerships.
Indoor positioning also has the potential to be creepy, as shown by the recent outcry over two malls' plan to track holiday shoppers' cellphones. Mr. Krulwich said indoor positioning would differ from that setup because it would be an opt-in feature users controlled on their own phones rather than something imposed by a mall operator.
"This area is set to explode," Mr. Krulwich posited. "It's the logical next step for what people are using phones for." It is also a market that is still open. Though Google has a first-mover advantage, Mr. Krulwich said the strength of other companies' patents – particularly Microsoft and Nokia –makes it "likely someone else will come out with something better."