IndoorAtlas uses geomagnetism to map buildings GPS can’t reach

Earth's geomagnetic field

IndoorAtlas has entered the increasingly crowded indoor mapping and navigation space, definitely has a trick up its sleeve that sets it apart from other location-based technology companies. Instead of using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals to triangulate a device’s location within a building, it’s using the Earth’s geomagnetic field.

Our smartphones share one thing in common with many animals: they have internal compasses that can orient themselves to the Earth’s magnetic field. And just as animals can detect local variations in that magnetic field to find their way around, our phones’ digital compasses can do the same. Structures and even furniture within buildings such as metal shelves naturally produce those geomagnetic anomalies, and by logging those anomalies on a map, they can be used to pinpoint a device — and its owner’s — exact location indoors.

IndoorAtlas map

Indoor navigation remains one of the last frontiers of digital cartography because buildings block the GPS signals we depend on to determine location. A raft of companies have sprung to try and fill that radio silence with Wi-Fi signals, the idea being that most public buildings are rife with Wi-Fi networks. By measuring the signal strength and direction of known access points, a phone can plot its location within a few meters. Many of the big internet and networking companies have developed or bought scooped indoor Wi-Fi location technologies to start mapping buildings, and Apple is using similar techniques with iBeacon, which uses Bluetooth Low Energy as proximity-based location tool.

Instead of relying on external networks, though, Indoor Atlas has created a mapping platform that lets would-be cartographers and developers use their smartphone compasses to record the geomagnetic characteristics of any given locale. That data is then plotted onto a pre-generated digital map, which can then be used to create indoor location-based apps. They could take the form of, say, a mall way-finding app, or it could become an extension of a turn-by-turn navigation provider’s directions service – telling users where they need to go after they’ve parked their cars.

IndoorAtlas didn’t reveal exactly how precise its technology is, but it claimed it could place a user within a specific aisle and section of a grocery store. So it may not be able to tell if you’re standing right in front of the Weetabix, but it can definitely send you a notification – or a coupon – when you get close. The company said the technology is now available to developers on its website.

Magnetic field image courtesy of Shutterstock user Fouad A. Saad

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