Start-up spot: 'Step-by-step' navigation, indoors

A new app helps position the user, down to the centimeter.

NIV ELIS watches his footsteps populate his smartphone to help navigate the Ayalon mall in Ramat Gan. (photo credit: ELI MANDELBAUM)
NIV ELIS watches his footsteps populate his smartphone to help navigate the Ayalon mall in Ramat Gan.
(photo credit: ELI MANDELBAUM)
The phrase “step-by-step navigation” usually refers to a list of instructions on how to get from one place to another. A new technology called Inside Navigation turns that on its head, making the navigation dependent on the steps you take: your footsteps.
The technology, developed by Israeli company Shopcloud, takes a whole new approach to navigation that equips it to be far more accurate than traditional Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation, making it suitable for navigating halls and corridors instead of just highways.
“Most of the navigation systems today work on GPS, which are based on the satellites that the US sent to the sky. What the GPS actually does is triangulate information from the satellites,” said Gilad Waksman, the company’s co-founder and CIO.
Between GPS and connecting to wi-fi signals, which increase the accuracy, your phone can figure out where in the world you are.
Inside Technology took a different approach, relying on the numerous other gadgets that come standard with most smartphones.
“We use visual signals and patterns to understand our self-positioning through the user camera and computer vision, with patent-pending algorithms that we’ve developed,” says Michael Bar-Ze’ev, head of VP product for the company. “As soon as we’ve done that, we stop using the cameras and start using the tracking, employing the accelerometer, the gyroscope and the compass to understand your movement in space.”
For the non-tech geeks among us, here’s what this means: First, the company maps out the place in question, such as a mall or stadium, to create its own map. Then, it uses your phone’s camera to figure out where in that space you happen to be. From that point on, it uses the motion detectors built into the phone to calculate where and how you’re moving, enabling it to figure out your location in a precise way.
Upon first use, the program calibrates to the user, learning the specific way they walk.
“Each person has their own fingerprint,” says Bar- Ze’ev. Once the computer figures out the idiosyncrasies of your step, it can easily follow you around. Instead of figuring out where you are within a range of meters, it does so within a range of centimeters.
And unlike other navigation technology, Inside Navigation does not record the steps you take, either on the device or in the cloud, giving it a high level of privacy. That worry may sound paranoid, but tracking footsteps has become the latest fad in marketing.
As The New York Times reported in July, stores are able to track who shoppers are and where they go using a combination of closed-circuit television cameras and wi-fi tracking. Even when a user’s phone does not connect to a wi-fi network, the network can record that they were there, and keep track of it.
Because it doesn’t rely on GPS or wi-fi, Inside Navigation can let those concerned with tracking turn off their wi-fi altogether; it even works in airplane mode. As an added perk, the lack of reliance on energy-hungry signals in your phone makes the technology energy-efficient, so it won’t drain your battery.
The inspiration for the technology came from another project altogether, says Waksman, whose previous business dealings dealt mostly with retail sales. An international retailer was looking for a way to help shoppers buy products in its warehouse outlets. After an exhaustive search for a technology to accurately navigate indoors, they decided to simply do it themselves.
“We understood that we can invent something that will give service not only to retailers, but to the world,” he says.
The company has already mapped out several major malls, such as the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan, and is working with international partners to help the technology spread.
The concept can be applied to stadiums, college campuses, libraries and hospitals, helping people get where they need to go quickly, in places that Google has not yet mapped out. In the future, the company plans tools to help people map out their own spaces, whether their office buildings, homes or neighborhoods.
But beyond helping frazzled shoppers find their stores more quickly, can the technology offer people anything more than added convenience?
One particularly intriguing possibility, says Waksman, is guiding the blind.
A technology that can figure out where someone is standing with only a small margin of error can work like an electronic seeing eye dog, guiding the user along, warning them of obstructions.
“I believe that technology should enable a lot of accessibility for all kinds of people,” says Waksman. “We believe that if we create that service, it will be the standard for all indoor venues.”
Users will be able to download the technology in app form starting in May.