Map Happenings

Mapping Industry Tidbits, Activity and Musings

Tsunami Warning: Indoor Maps

So here we are in 2022 and we’ve been digitally mapping the world in earnest for about the last 37 years. 

Back in 1985 the nascent in-vehicle nav industry began mapping street centerlines and road names. Later they added attributes like turn restrictions and one ways. As technology allowed, the world of national mapping agencies digitized even more — land use, hydrography, contour lines, key landmarks as well as building outlines. Local governments did the same, focusing on all the information needed to run their cities such as parcel boundaries, sewer lines, water lines and fire hydrants. Utility companies joined the club, mapping their infrastructure so they could better manage and operate their investments. 

2022 is a remarkably different world for digital maps than it was back in 1985. 

Just as consumers would be lost (literally!) without their favorite consumer mapping app I venture to say that all of us in the corporate and government world would be lost without our enterprise maps and apps. How could we even think about running our cities or our businesses without them? It would be like going back to typewriters.

However, there’s something still missing — and you no doubt guessed it from the title of this post. 

While we’ve been earnestly mapping the outdoors we’ve been more or less steadfastly ignoring the indoors. There are exceptions of course — and I’ll get to that in a moment. 

But think about it. 

For indoor maps we’re maybe just beyond the era of the brick phone and about to enter the world of the first flip phone. Back then the only people who commonly had mobile phones were CEOs and VPs. Even in the late 1990s you would have to ask the question: “Do you have a mobile phone?” before you asked the question “What’s your mobile number?”

We’re at about the same point today with indoor maps.

How many of you have detailed indoor maps of all your facilities and buildings? I’m not talking about the CAD drawings or BIMs that were used in construction. I’m talking about interactive indoor maps and associated apps that get used to operate your building and provide valuable services to its inhabitants. 

I’m guessing very, very few of you …

So if we fast forward to the point of indoor map versus outdoor map equality, what might it look like?

Well first of all you’ll be ridiculed if your buildings and facilities are not fully map-enabled. It would be like not having a smartphone. Anyone selling or leasing a building would be at a significant disadvantage if their buildings were not fully map-enabled, just as they would be if their buildings didn’t come with power, water and a high speed data connection. 

Just as the use of outdoor maps is broad, the use of indoor maps will be equally broad. Yes, of course people will use indoor maps for wayfinding. That will be a given. But they’ll also use them for so many other important things:

  • to guide people with accessibility challenges, providing them with ‘stepless’ routes or voice navigation 
  • to locate people and mobile equipment, providing substantial increases in operational efficiency
  • to supercharge facilities management, so workers don’t have to wander aimlessly, hunting for that fixture in need of repair
  • to optimize resource allocation by using indoor analytics to determine the best location for a department or a piece of equipment like a copier
  • to get first responders to where they’re needed, fast
  • to help people in emergencies, allowing consumer mapping apps to flip automatically to “emergency” mode and guide users to the nearest exit

This isn’t a complete list. There are sure to be new inventions along the way. Who, for example, predicted Uber or Pokémon Go when iPhone launched?

For any building there will be multiple views into the map, just like any modern database provides multiple views into the data. So, from the single map-of-record there will be the visitor map, showing only the publicly accessible areas. And there will be the map for staff, showing offices, meeting rooms and “back-of-the-house” corridors. And then there will be the map for facilities management, helping them easily visualize the underlying building infrastructure. In large public facilities like an airport there might even be a map for security, perhaps showing locations of armories or a jail. 

But how will all this happen?

Well, there are a fair number of companies focused on indoor today, but we’re still a few years away from indoor map ubiquity. Some companies are more focused on indoor mapping while others are more focused on indoor positioning. 

The list of companies includes: Apple, Dent Reality, Esri, EVS Software, Google, IndoorAtlas, IndoorVu, Inpixon, Magicplan, MappedIn, MapsPeople, Mapsted, Mapxus, Navenio, Navv Systems, NextNav, Office of Museum Research, Point Consulting, Pointr, Pole Star, Situm, VenueX, Visioglobe and Yinzcam. If you think I’m missing someone please let me know. I suspect I might have to add Amazon to this list shortly, given their intention to acquire iRobot. Ha ha.

I hope to go into greater detail about the players in a future post, but in the meantime I’ll highlight a few companies that I think are distinctive:

  • MappedIn: MappedIn has a super easy content management system (CMS) to create, edit and maintain indoor maps of your facilities. And … you don’t need a degree to use it. As a result they’ve had a lot of success: MappedIn is used by the majority of US shopping centers and many of the Fortune 500 are using it for their corporate campuses. But the game changer may be MappedIn’s entry into public safety: they just launched a product developed with the US Department of Homeland Security to give first responders the situational awareness they so desperately need.
  • Mapxus: Mapxus is having similar success across the Asia Pacific region. They’ve map-enabled about 150 buildings across Hong Kong, including museums, hospitals, shopping centers and train stations —  with many more in the works. In partnership with Kawasaki Heavy Industries they’re expanding into Japan. What distinguishes Mapxus is their work to support accessibility by providing ‘stepless’ routes and non-visual guidance. You can see a video of their app here — it’s in Cantonese, but you’ll get the gist. 
  • Navv Systems: Navv Systems has developed an amazing indoor platform to supercharge logistics inside hospitals. They call the system “Care Traffic Control”.  As you might have guessed it’s inspired by the FAA’s air traffic control. Hospitals using the platform gain complete, almost real-time visibility into the precise location of doctors, patients and equipment. This makes dispatching and patient transportation incredibly efficient. It also eliminates the situation where doctors waste valuable time trying to find their patient. And equipment management becomes much simpler, for example: you can use it to quickly locate those 649 IV pumps that are still subject to a recall. 

So what’s holding back the indoor maps tsunami wave? 

I think there are three key things: 

  • First we’ve got to make it even easier to create “as built” maps. The problem is many floor plans of existing buildings fail to match ground truth due to the various building modifications and renovations that happen over the years. One set of plans might match one part of the building, but there’s no single version of the truth for the whole facility. Collating plans and making sense of reality is time consuming and expensive. Another more efficient way needs to be devised. Apps like Magicplan do an awesome job of this and iOS 16’s new Room Plan API should only make them better. By simply scanning a room with an iPhone you can more or less instantly create a floor plan 1. There may be some limitations with these apps due to the range of the LiDAR sensor, but it’s still a huge step forward. Here’s a challenge to Trimble: why not do the same with your longer range scanners?
  • The second issue is getting from the scan to a reusable floor plan with zero effort. The scanning apps that create floor plans should go one step further: they need to support export of the floor plan into a standardized format. One such format might be IMDF which is becoming a popular data exchange format for indoor spaces. Imagine if you could take a high-end LiDAR scanner, hit ’Start’, wheel the device around the facility, hit ‘End’ and the resulting vector floor plan was then exported as IMDF ready for importing into your favorite indoor CMS. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think anyone’s done that yet. What I’m saying here (and will emphasize in more detail in future posts) is that widely adopted data exchange standards are fundamental to success. For example, where would we all be without PDF? Thank you Adobe!
  • Lastly there’s one piece of the puzzle that has to be solved to make everything work: you have to have an incredibly easy way to enable indoor positioning, so you know exactly where you are or where things are — not only the latitude and longitude but also which floor. For those of you who aren’t GPS nerds: GPS doesn’t work indoors and it doesn’t provide floor numbers. Fortunately there’s a ton of activity in the indoor positioning space, but there’s still more work to be done. No one has made enabling indoor positioning insanely easy. Some approaches require installing (and maintaining) substantial infrastructure. As a result they are expensive. Other solutions don’t require infrastructure, but still require walking the entire building to record the ambient radio waves from Wi-Fi and other devices. None are instant or perfect. The take away: it’s not like GPS. I hope to go into detail about the state of indoor positioning technology in a future post. 

So in summary, dear readers, indoor maps are a Map Happening in the making. I will go on record to predict that indoor map ubiquity is not too far away.  

Get ready for the tidal wave.

1 The issue of correctly geo-referencing the resulting floor plan to latitude and longitude coordinates is also part of the challenge. There’s more work to be done by organizations to make this super simple and easy. 

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