Indoor mapping


How to choose an indoor mapping solution?



We are accustomed to using Web and mobile applications with embedded mapping features to either locate a person, position an asset or show a car itinerary. Most of the time, those applications rely on popular mapping solutions such as Google Maps or Apple Maps to display cartographic content. While those platforms provide an excellent user experience they also have some deep limitations especially when it comes to indoor capabilities.

Google Maps and Apple Maps have been primarily designed to fulfill outdoor consumer needs. They are intended to manage public data whether static such as roads and points-of-interests (POIs), or dynamic such as traffic condition. Even if they perform very well in those fields, several distinct applications are still needed depending on the usage context. As an example, we use Waze (owned by Google) when driving while we prefer Google Maps once out of the car. There is definitely no one-size-fits-all App in the mapping business. While outdoor maps are built by using satellite imagery and fully-equipped cars driving through every road, building maps should use architect floor plans as primary data. Google Maps and Apple maps do provide floor plans for some flagship buildings such as Shopping Malls, Airports or Railway Stations but their indoor capabilities are always very limited. The first reason is that since there is no building owner permission, only public parts of general public buildings can be displayed. A second reason is that since outdoor maps mostly deal with slow changing environments like roads, they don't have the tools to handle quick changes of indoor maps. As a consequence, only a small number of details are provided, and many are often outdated. Moreover, the business model of those outdoor maps is to provide value to consumers while collecting user data, and not to provide business services. This is why companies looking for dedicated services to map private buildings and campuses acquire an indoor mapping solution.

Mapping vs positioning

We usually mix mapping and positioning technologies because they are often used together in the same app. However, most of the time, those technologies are not created and managed by the same companies. For example, the GPS providing outdoor positioning is operated by NASA. Galileo, the new European satellite positioning system is being deployed by the ESA. Their signals can be picked up by any device and the "blue dot" displayed on any outdoor map.

Indoors, since the GPS is not an efficient option, lots of technologies (Beacons, Wi-Fi, Li-Fi, etc.) are competing while none is able to prevail in every context. Still, the same separation of function should remain; an indoor position should be usable on any indoor map and any indoor map should be usable with any indoor positioning system.

End-user needs

Google Maps defined the standard in the mapping industry thanks to a terrific User Experience (UX) that combines a convenient interface along with a powerful search tool and direction engine. Since almost everyone is using it on a daily basis, users expect such a cool experience with every embedded mapping feature. Consequently, users no longer tolerate quick and dirty solutions such as static images or PDF files. Users want a fluid interface able to provide a seamless experience between outdoor and indoor maps, whether it is to visualize floor plans or compute itineraries. Beyond this need, in most cases, it is necessary to display additional data around buildings. That's the reason why platforms that only display indoor maps are most likely a dead-end because of either their inability to display outdoor content or their need to redraw the outdoor area around the building which is time-consuming, unreliable and expensive. Finally, users also expect multi-channel capabilities. They want to be able to access maps on any device: their computer when planning a trip, their mobile phones while on site, or even a kiosk for quick overview when convenient.

Outdoors, users don't simply want to see the roads, they also want live traffic information. Indoors, the same principle applies. Which space is busy? Which part is crowded or noisy? What's the waiting time to pass security or to be served at the restaurant? All those features are essential to provide a unique experience to your customers within your venues.

Building managers' needs

From a Building Managers' perspective, a good indoor mapping platform must provide four important features. The first is a user-friendly back-office interface that allows to manage venues without external assistance. It is particularly important that administrators are able to import and update easily both floor plans and additional content themselves. Besides, any decent platform should be able to process major floor plan formats such as AutoCad DWG and BIM files. The second feature is the ability to create multiple building views. Maps can't be a one-size-fits-all content. Users want highly customized maps based on the user and context. For instance, in office buildings a visitor view can be displayed for public areas only, an employee view which is more detailed with additional private content can be created, a technical view for maintenance staff can also be displayed, and so on according to the needs. The third feature is a fine security and permission management system to decide who can use each view based on roles and location. Then, the ability to share transient map access with third-parties is definitely a must have feature. Last but not least, analytic capabilities to display platform usage are definitely not an option. Managers should be able to get accurate metrics about search and direction engine usage. When used together with a positioning system, presence metrics and heat-maps are very useful to understand how premises are used and answer the following questions: where are people coming from? How long do they stay? Which parts of the buildings are least used?

Developers needs

Most of the time, indoor mapping isn't a standalone feature, it is part of a bigger whole such as a workspace management App or a shopping mall App. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to choose a mapping platform which is available as a component a.k.a. Software Development Kit (SDK) that can be embedded into your applications. Such SDK should be available for each targeted platform, usually Android, iOS and JavaScript. Moreover, SDKs have to be easy to use and very flexible to allow developers to customize their User Interface according to the needs. Just like SDKs are a key feature on the client side, we need an Application Programming Interface (API) on the server side. The API allows server-to-server communication between the indoor mapping platform and the third-party software such as Building Management Systems (BMS), Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS), sensor networks or any other kind of data sources. By using APIs, developers are able to synchronize the mapping platform with external sources to provide up-to-date maps and real-time updates. Both APIs and SDKs have to be properly documented with demo applications and a preferably large developer community. Last but not least, in most projects, we have to combine indoor mapping along with one or several indoor positioning technologies. This is a tricky part of the project because we have to add one or more positioning SDKs to the application, not to mention to manage interactions between mapping and positioning. The best way to handle this is to use a dedicated framework such as Indoor Location that provides connectors to the most used positioning technologies. Icing on the cake, this framework is free, extensible, and, available under the MIT Open Source license.

Conclusion

People are eager to have various new digital services inside buildings: wayfinding, asset tracking, meeting room occupancy, workspace management, etc. All those services need to rely on indoor maps to display located content. Since, building floor plans and content frequently change, they should be synchronized with all the applications involved. It is necessary to have a centralized management to keep those data up-to-date. That's the purpose of an indoor mapping platform.

Key points to remember

  • Popular outdoor mapping consumer platforms don't fulfill B2B indoor mapping requirements
  • Indoor Mapping platforms must be independent of positioning technologies
  • Seamless integration between indoor and outdoor maps is necessary
  • Maps should be available across multiple channels (Mobile, Web, Kiosk, etc.)
  • Indoor maps should be customizable based on user profile
  • Openness is reached through API availability and reliable SDKs