24 January 2014

Google Maps Indoor

Online Maps, such as those offered by Google, have become the cornerstone of wayfinding in today's always-connected world. I use Google Maps regularly to plan a route, find the right subway stop,  or even just check traffic. Until recently, navigation has focused on outdoor navigation only, meaning that a Google Maps user will have no trouble finding the desired building, but then must find their own way once inside. Google is working to change that with a new indoor mapping product.

Classic (confusing) map of a mall.
If I am in the green, how do I get to the red?
How do I cross the black abyss
between the red and purple stores?
Where is the exit?!?

Google Maps Indoor has recently starting mapping public indoor spaces and incorporating these maps into the Google Maps application on Android. A user can view inside an eligible building simply by zooming in on the map. The maps can be quite detailed, showing hallways, rooms, bathrooms, elevators and stairwells on each floor of a building.

Maps Inside view
of the GooglePlex

Indoor maps will be the next revolution in location technology. Map users will be able to navigate even the most confusing complexes with ease and find their exact destination within the building. As exciting as the prospect of indoor navigation is, there are some significant challenges remaining:

1) The maps must be made. Outdoor streets and spaces have been mapped and remapped over the years by a variety of organizations, resulting in a comprehensive, up-to-date mapset. Interior maps, on the other hand, exist for few buildings. Building owners must upload floorplans for their buildings in order to be included in google maps indoor. For a helpful video on how to do this, click here.

2) Lack of Indoor Location. Most mobile devices are not yet able to determine their location inside a building, meaning that the device can display an interior map of a given building, but cannot indicate where that device is on the map. NFC has provided limited solutions allowing a device to be tapped to an NFC terminal to indicate that "I am here" but this method is quite primitive and usually requires the user to actually touch their phone to a reader. Apple's iBeacon shows promise as a means to determine indoor location, but iBeacon roll-out has not yet reached critical mass of adoption.

3) No Indoor Routing Instructions. The ultimate goal with indoor mapping is enable turn-by-turn navigation inside buildings. The ability to view indoor map data is a start towards this end, but a device must also be able to determine it's indoor location to accurately navigate. In addition, each building must be associated with a routing table, which helps the map software understand how different pathways interconnect throughout the building. Without a routing table, the mapping application has no idea if Hallway A connects to Hallway B, or if the door in Hallway B opens one way or both, etc. 

Toggling between floor 1 (right) and floor 2 (left)
of the interior of the GooglePlex.