Indoor navigation systems are being rapidly adopted across a number of major sectors and are quickly becoming something users associate with forward-thinking companies that want to deliver truly exceptional experiences to their customers and visitors. In this guide, we’ll cover all the major questions on indoor navigation that we’ve fielded in over ten years as one of the world’s leading providers of indoor navigation systems.
- What is indoor navigation?
- How do indoor navigation systems work?
- What is the difference between static and dynamic wayfinding?
- What is the difference between indoor navigation and indoor positioning?
- What is the difference between indoor and outdoor navigation systems?
- What technology is best for accurate indoor navigation?
- Can Google Maps be used for indoor navigation systems?
- Why is indoor navigation important?
- What are some of the best examples of indoor navigation use cases?
- What sets Pointr’s Indoor navigation system apart?
What is indoor navigation?
Indoor navigation is a system, tool or app that enables the user to be guided through an indoor location, typically via a handheld interface such as a smartphone, or by a static interface such as an information kiosk.
Handheld interfaces will aim to provide turn-by-turn instructions and account for the steps the user has already taken (known as dynamic wayfinding), while an interface like a kiosk is more likely to simply show the route overlaid upon a map and rely upon the user remembering how to get to their destination.
Indoor navigation systems universally rely upon an accurate map of the indoor location being available, and, in the case of dynamic wayfinding systems, the ability to accurately calculate a user’s position within an indoor environment is also required.
How do indoor navigation systems work?
There have been a number of different solutions over the years for creating effective indoor navigation systems. However, most modern systems use a system along the following lines.
First, an indoor environment is mapped. An accurate map is critical to indoor navigation, as any inaccuracies, such as a wall being in the wrong position, could have a major knock-on effect to the routes available and where the user could feasibly be located within the map, rendering the entire indoor navigation system unusable.
Once an indoor map has been created, the next step is to establish accurate indoor positioning technology (assuming the indoor navigation system is going to offer dynamic wayfinding). As mentioned previously, there have been many different solutions to the question of accurate indoor positioning over time, due mainly to the fact that the leading outdoor positioning technology, GPS, can rarely work accurately indoors.
This indoor map is then combined with the user’s position and additional routing considerations (such as whether the user has requested to avoid certain obstacles like staircases, or whether they've requested multiple destinations in a single journey) to provide the user with a route. This is known as a dynamic indoor navigation system. To understand the differences between dynamic and static indoor navigation, please see below.
What is the difference between static and dynamic wayfinding?
There are two key types of indoor wayfinding in common use today - dynamic and static wayfinding.
Dynamic wayfinding refers to the style of system most people would think of when they think of navigation tools. Indoor positioning technology is used to pinpoint a user’s live location within an indoor environment. Dynamic wayfinding is then layered on top of this foundation, enabling the user to select a destination (and potentially waypoints in between, as well as routing instructions, such as avoiding stairs), and then finding the best route from their current location. What makes this form of wayfinding dynamic is the fact that no matter where the user is within the location, the system is able to provide them with a route.
Static wayfinding doesn’t rely upon a system being able to locate a user via indoor positioning. Instead, it is set up only to account for direction requests made from specific points (most commonly, fixed terminals or kiosks that allow users to view maps). As these terminals and the destination points will rarely move, the system needed to enable static wayfinding is less complex. The downside is that users aren’t able to wayfind dynamically as they move around an indoor space from personal devices such as smartphones.
What is the difference between indoor navigation and indoor positioning?
A question we hear regularly is the precise differences between indoor navigation and indoor positioning. Simply put, indoor positioning is all about pinpointing a user’s location within an indoor location, while indoor navigation is the next step, taking that location and combining it with POI and route data to provide the user with a route from their current location to their requested destination. In essence, for this use case, positioning data is the required foundation, with navigation layered on top. Positioning is also known as ‘blue dot’, after the familiar blue shape we’re accustomed to seeing in many navigation and mapping applications.
An exception here is static wayfinding, which, as explained above, doesn’t rely on positioning data as it uses as its basis the idea that the user is searching from a fixed location, such as a kiosk, and therefore doesn’t require live positioning data to function.
What is the difference between indoor and outdoor navigation systems?
Over the past couple of decades, outdoor navigation systems have experienced a huge boom in popularity, moving from expensive, standalone units to free apps such as Google Maps that now have user numbers in the billions. In many ways, these apps have set the standard for what users now expect from any navigation app, from functionality to accuracy to even foundational design choices, such as the now-standardized use of a blue dot to denote a user’s position.
In this sense, there’s little to differentiate many indoor and outdoor navigation systems. Most consumer-facing indoor navigation systems look to achieve cohesion with the systems that users are already familiar with, offering them the same suite of features (such as wayfinding between multiple points of interest (POIs), deliberately avoiding certain building features like stairs as they might do with toll roads, and so on) in order to give users a smooth transition to using a new system.
It’s on the technological side powering indoor and outdoor navigation systems, respectively, where the major differences lie. Almost all outdoor systems rely upon GPS to some extent for their positioning. However, in indoor environments GPS rarely works as intended, meaning different technology is required to enable accurate positioning and, with that, wayfinding. We have more detail on the challenges faced by GPS in indoor environments in this post, and we discuss the different technological alternatives for indoor navigation in the next section of this post.
What technology is best for accurate indoor navigation?
As the indoor navigation market is still in its growth stage, there are plenty of competing technologies that have been tried and tested. Implementing the correct technological foundation to an indoor navigation system is absolutely critical, as a lack of accuracy and coverage can prevent a system from ever working effectively, and prove extremely costly to replace.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular technological solutions used for indoor navigation, with their key pros and cons.
Bluetooth/ Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
Bluetooth and its low energy equivalent, known as BLE, have emerged as the most popular and reliable technology for indoor positioning and navigation. Bluetooth's core advantages are that it offers accuracy good enough to establish a comprehensive reading of the user’s location, combined with relatively low cost. This means that enough Bluetooth beacons can be affixed to an indoor location to ensure widespread coverage with no dead zones.
Bluetooth also holds the enormous advantage that it’s almost ubiquitous on modern smartphones and has been for well over a decade. This means that most businesses installing systems using Bluetooth only need to worry about the installed hardware - any potential users have a compatible end device in their pocket already.
We’ve covered Bluetooth and Bluetooth beacons comprehensively on the blog, including here.
WiFi has been used in some indoor navigation systems, often in conjunction with workplaces that have multiple WiFi routers or access points dotted around in a single location. However, for several reasons, it’s now falling out of favor. Firstly, the cost per access point compared to a single BLE beacon can be extremely onerous, adding greatly to the cost of installing a system. Secondly, WiFi has a number of technical drawbacks, such as high energy consumption and restrictions on which devices can receive and interpret certain aspects of the signals and data. As a result, the accuracy is often inferior to Bluetooth while the cost is much higher.
We’ve covered the differences between WiFi and BLE in greater detail here.
Ultra wideband, or UWB, has been hyped as the next big thing in indoor location technology for some time. In the right situations, it can offer excellent accuracy, and many UWB devices offer a greater range than BLE beacons, meaning that in theory, fewer beacons are required to achieve the same degree of coverage. However, this is rarely the case in indoor environments, where the volume of beacons is dictated not only by the size but also by the complexity of the space and the number of obstacles present, generally meaning that in practice, just as many beacons are required regardless of the technology.
The greater impediment to UWB’s use, however, is the limited number of consumer devices that currently have UWB enabled. While it is becoming more common in modern smartphones, it’s still mainly restricted to relatively recent devices, meaning an indoor navigation system that relies solely upon UWB would be restricting a vast proportion of potential users from ever using it. In closed, private environments, this issue can be alleviated by providing specialized end user devices - such as a warehouse where all the workers are given UWB-enabled stock picking devices. However, this can be a large added expense, and does nothing to resolve the issue in public environments such as retail stores.
Similarly to UWB, 5G has had hype around its usage for indoor location ever since it launched, in large part due to the amount of data it’s able to transfer wirelessly.
However, much like WiFi, 5G has proved inferior to BLE in some critical ways. Firstly, one of the main challenges in achieving an accurate indoor positioning reading is navigating signals and achieving coverage in tight, congested indoor spaces. The amount of data needing to be sent and received for indoor positioning is generally quite low (hence why BLE can be used instead of standard Bluetooth) - it’s getting that data from the beacons to the end device in order to calculate the position that is the main challenge.
This renders 5G’s advantage in data volume moot. The next downside is that 5G’s signals struggle to penetrate and pass through obstacles like many other technologies listed here. BLE goes some way to alleviating this issue thanks to the low cost of beacons, meaning they can be installed in such a way as to eliminate dead zones. However, compared to BLE beacons, 5G transmitters and beacons are typically far more expensive, meaning a 5G powered system is much more costly to install without offering any major advantage over BLE.
To see highlights from a webinar in which we discuss 5G and indoor location, click here.
Unlike the previously discussed technologies, fingerprinting is a technique, rather than a specific technology such as Bluetooth. However, it frequently crops up in discussions about indoor navigation systems, so it’s worth including here.
Fingerprinting effectively works by building a ‘map’ of an indoor location based off various beacons or signal transmitters and the strength of those signals in a particular location. For example, if someone is stood in one spot in a building, they may be directly under beacon A (meaning a very strong signal), 5 meters from beacon B (medium strength) and 15 from beacon C (weak strength). As they move, the relative signal strengths change. If the strength from beacon B becomes strong, beacon C becomes medium and beacon A becomes weak, the system can infer that the user has moved in a particular direction to a new location.
While fingerprinting can work well if set up effectively, it comes with some major drawbacks when compared to systems that calculate location ‘live’. Setting up an accurate and comprehensive ‘map’ of signals is extremely time-consuming and labor intensive, generally requiring specialists to be on-site. Furthermore, should anything change in terms of the location’s layout, or should a beacon be moved, it can impact the entire map and require a complete recalculation.
We have a comprehensive post on fingerprinting-based location, how it works and its drawbacks here.
Can Google Maps be used for indoor navigation systems?
Though Google Maps has long been associated with outdoor maps and navigation, they do offer some limited indoor mapping functionality, which we cover in this post.
Using these maps, it’s possible to activate navigation and receive guidance from both indoor and outdoor locations to an indoor destination. Google Maps comes with some huge plus points - it’s a free service, and it’s one of the world’s most popular apps, meaning that end users wouldn’t need to download anything extra in order to access indoor navigation powered via Google.
There are, however, some major impediments to businesses aiming to use Google Maps for indoor navigation. Firstly, access is discretionary - Google currently don’t allow anyone to upload maps and have them enabled, preferring to pick and choose which locations are eligible for indoor maps. Secondly, even for businesses that clear this bar, Google Maps leverages GPS for all its positioning technology. This works fantastically outdoors, but as previously mentioned, in indoor environments GPS faces a number of issues which can compromise its performance significantly.
This inability to provide the necessary accuracy in indoor environments means that Google Maps’ efficacy as an indoor navigation tool is typically limited to very large and simple indoor spaces, such as event halls, where accuracy only needs to be approximate. For any area more complicated - such as retail stores, workplaces or even airports - it’s unlikely to provide the requisite accuracy.
Why is indoor navigation important?
Indoor navigation is a rapidly developing area, and the demand for indoor navigation systems is growing quickly. There are several reasons why so many major companies are investing in indoor navigation or are at least considering implementing a system.
Firstly, the number of uses - Indoor navigation has been found to be hugely beneficial to a vast array of different types of businesses. Hospitals have used them to help patients navigate vast complexes, reducing no-show appointments and saving millions of dollars per year in the process. Modern workplaces have twinned navigation systems with hot desking and room booking software to guide workers in unfamiliar areas of the office. Airports are leveraging systems to help guide travelers to their gate quickly and using the most efficient route possible.
Secondly, the ubiquity of outdoor navigation systems. People the world over are now used to using outdoor navigation apps such as Google Maps every day - certain navigation requests are searched for tens of millions of times per month in the US. Offering them the same experience indoors while competitors don’t is a huge selling point given that navigation systems now have billions of converts the world over. Eventually, indoor navigation will become an expectation, not a novelty, and the companies who adopted navigation systems first will be the leading beneficiaries.
What are some of the best examples of indoor navigation use cases?
Indoor navigation offers a plethora of opportunities and benefits that companies of all types can pass on to their visitors or customers. Some of the top use cases that we at Pointr have actively been involved in delivering include:
- Guiding airport visitors to their gate and ensuring they’re alerted in time to get there before their flight boards. Upon returning, the system can then guide them through security checkpoints and baggage claim through to the parking lot to the very space they parked in
- Helping users add multiple items to a list prior to their visit to a retail store, then upon arrival guiding them through the store to each item in the most efficient manner possible
- Enabling users to wayfind through a complex healthcare facility, selecting routes based on their needs (such as choosing between an elevator and stairs), helping to make a potentially stressful situation less so
- Enabling visually-impaired users to more easily find their way through complex indoor spaces, and helping users with limited movement navigate in such a way that avoids obstacles such as staircases
What’s truly exciting is that we’re still at the beginning of the indoor wayfinding journey - there are countless future use cases just waiting to be discovered across every industry and type of company you could care to name.
What sets Pointr’s Indoor navigation system apart?
While there are an increasing number of vendors offering indoor navigation systems, Pointr are the market leaders for a reason. Using our Deep Location® technology, we’re able to provide outstanding accuracy. Our suite of mapping tools, including MapScale®, mean complete harmony between your indoor navigation and the map on which it’s built - no awkward integrations or unforeseen incompatibilities to worry about.
What’s more, we’re dedicated to continually iterating and improving our navigation solution. We work closely with our partners and clients to deliver the features and enhancements that will make the most impact on their businesses. One such feature is indoor-outdoor navigation, allowing users to navigate from building to building across a campus and then enter and navigate within one of those buildings, all within one single, seamless interface.