Standing in front of that woolly mammoth exhibit, you might crave more information than what’s printed on the display card at the stuffed beast’s foot. If you happen to be at the Royal BC Museum, in Victoria, Canada, though, you need only look down at your smartphone.
The BC Museum is working with indoor-positioning-firm Wifarer to not only map its floor plans but also provide a location-aware guide to its exhibits. Like Google(s goog) and Microsoft(s msft), Wifarer uses Wi-Fi fingerprinting technology to create its maps and triangulate a phone’s location indoors. But the Vancouver-based startup is only using maps and indoor navigation as a starting point.
Once a base map is produced, a building owner can start adding “objects” to the map, corresponding to objects in physical space. Those objects can then be populated with information, which can be accessed directly from the map or pushed to a user when the object is nearby. Like Foursquare, Wifarer is trying to embed virtual information into physical locations. The difference is Wifarer’s definition of a location isn’t limited to a business. It knows where you are in the room.
Wifarer has developed its own proprietary fingerprinting technology that determines a phone’s exact location within 3 meters in nearly all cases, but in areas of high Wi-Fi density like airports, hotels and conference centers it can hone that accuracy down to half a meter, Wifarer founder and CEO Philip Stanger told GigaOM.
In the case of the BC Museum that technology is being used to embed virtual data into physical exhibits. As you move throughout the museum, information on particular exhibits automatically overlays the map as you approach them. Objects are also available as icons on the map, so you can investigate whether it’s worth making that trek to the next wing to see the raptor exhibit or if you would rather just stop at snack bar (which might just push you a coupon for lunch as you near it).
“We’re not just building maps,” Stanger said. “We’re triggering location events. That’s what we’re most excited about.”
A lot of malls, but also a lot of mapping companies
Wifarer faces a lot of competition. The indoors is the last great frontier of location-based services, and companies big and small are racing to survey it. Wifarer, however, has a different business model than Google, Microsoft or other mapping startups like Micello, Stanger said. Instead of building maps and then selling services like advertising back to the companies located within them, Wifarer is working at the behest of the building it is surveying. It has a Software-as-a-Service business model, which allows its partners to build their own revenue models and control how their maps are utilized, Stanger said.
Like Google Maps or Bing Maps, Wifarer uses a single application to aggregate all of its maps (Stanger said creating individual apps for individual venues would be pointless), which consumers can download from the iTunes(s aapl) and Google Play stores. But the individual maps belong to and are controlled by the venues that license Wifarer’s software. That allows a museum to use the technology to build a virtual and customizable multimedia guide, while a mall might use the technology solely for commercial promotional purposes, Stanger said.
Of course, there’s nothing to prevent a Google, Bing or Micello from trying to map your Wifarer customers’ venues as well and offer their own competing location-based services. But Wifarer is providing means for its customers to protect their turf. Stanger said it has developed software that will disrupt the Wi-Fi fingerprints that other mapping companies use to determine location, making accurate coordinate readings impossible. Very sneaky.
The BC Museum is Wifarer’s first publicly announced customer, but the startup said it’s in beta trials with several other venues, including the Bay Centre shopping mall in Victoria and the Vancouver International Airport. This year it will expand into the U.S., covering all points of the compass: It is working with an East Coast shopping center, a West Coast university, a Midwestern hospital and a Southern convention center.
Founded in Feb. 2010, Wifarer is preparing to seek a Series A round. It has 20 employees spread between its headquarters in Vancouver and offices in San Jose, Calif. Its original funding came from $500,000 in Canadian government grant money and investments from its founders, though the company is starting to see a revenue stream from its venue deals.