David vs Goliath: Wifarer’s bold quest to out-map Google indoors

Wifarer app for Android

Everyday we hear about some new mobile startup, but few of them accomplish anything grand. Rather than win users with a quirky little endeavor, Wifarer has decided to take on a behemoth: Google and its big plan to map out the interiors of airports, museums, universities, shopping malls, casinos, resorts, supermarkets, convention centers, and every other indoor place that’s big enough to warrant a map. Google has a head start too. As Wifarer ramps up its first venues, Google has already mapped more than 10,000 stores, casinos, and resorts around the world. But as small as it is, Wifarer’s vision is bigger: Google wants to map the indoors — Wifarer wants to help you understand it.

Google’s first indoor maps have been sparse, at best, and mostly point out a few businesses inside major venues, but Wifarer thinks it can do a lot better. It aims to turn indoor mapping into an experience all its own. To do this, it has done three amazing things: It concocted a way to find locations indoors without the aid of GPS; it creates drawing maps so detailed that they can guide you to anywhere you want to go, from the nearest bathroom to the fourth floor escalator emergency exit; and its platform is so robust that it places can be stocked with a ton of proximity-based content. (If you walk past a Woolly Mammoth exhibit in a museum, Wifarer’s app will tell you all about it.)

It’s called ‘Indoor Positioning’

When I spoke with Wifarer’s CEO and co-founder Philip Stanger, he was quick to let me know that Wifarer is not just about indoor ‘mapping.’ It’s about much more.

“It’s indoor positioning — slight difference,” said Stanger. “Maps is a part of it, but what we’re mainly interested in is not so much the idea of indoor navigation or wayfinding — which is, of course, very important and something that you definitely do — but the idea of triggering location events based upon where you are is [what we’re most excited about].”

Here’s the idea: Wifarer is an app that Android and iPhone owners can download and open when they enter a supported location, like an airport, museum, or department store. Once opened, it changes its design and layout to match the needs of whatever location you’re at. If you’re at a store, it will show the sections of the store and help you find what items you’d like to buy and can even show coupons; if you’re in an airport, it can help guide you to your airline, gate, or the bathrooms. Every location or business gets its own customized maps and services. In essence, it molds itself to the needs of the location you are in.

Here’s how it works: Indoor maps are desperately needed in some venues, but they aren’t easy to accomplish, which is why even Google, with all its mapping might, has struggled to map the indoor spaces of the world. To breathe life into this broken dream, Wifarer is using a new approach. Instead of trying to use GPS to navigate indoors — which is notoriously unreliable due to its need to connect to a satellite — Wifarer is using indoor Wi-Fi access points. By pinging a number of access points inside of a venue (which are calibrated to allow this) and calculating how ‘loud’ each of their signals are when they come back, the Wifarer app can calculate your position within a few feet, Stanger told me. If you’re near a “point of interest” for a venue, the app can trigger a popup or notification to let you know more about where you are. 

Wifarer content management system

(Sidenote for geeks: Stanger was quick to tell me that it doesn’t ‘triangulate’ your position. Instead, it’s more like pattern recognition. When a venue signs up to be a part of Wifarer, a team comes out to get a lay of the land, so to speak, and map out where access points are and such. By comparing your signal strength to the info on file, the Wifarer app can determine your actual location within about four and a half feet.)

The latest venue: Royal BC Museum

Wifarer Royal BC Museum Woolly MammothDays ago, Wifarer officially launched in one of its first large-scale venues: the Royal British Columbia Museum of natural and human history in Victoria, Canada. Now, everyone who enters the museum can easily download the free Wifarer app and have a full guide to the museum right on their smartphone (Android and iPhone). Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make the trip from NYC to Victoria to give the system a whirl, but even though we aren’t in the museum, we can actually still use the Wifarer app to check out what the museum has to offer.

On Android, the user interface is fully functional, but could look a lot nicer. It needs some work and an update to the new styles of Android 4.0. Still, the maps are so nicely drawn that you can tell the men’s bathrooms from the women’s and look through all five floors of the museum. Every exhibit in the museum is labeled. The dinosaur area on the second floor is so detailed that you can actually tell which major dinosaur skeletons are on display. The third floor is split into sections of human history with sections about farming, sailing the ancient seas, and such. As you walk around the museum and enter new areas, information pages pop up to let you know info about entire halls or specific exhibits, like the Microraptor, which is a species of dinosaur that had wings and climbed trees, but couldn’t actually fly. Videos pop up and can be streamed in particular areas as well, providing things like a scientist showing how our ancestors discovered how to make knives with disposable blades. Pretty cool.

Wifarer video BC Museum

If I was in the museum, I could also select a section, like dinosaurs (I like dinosaurs), and the app will guide me to that location in the museum, much like an outdoor map. Finally, a news feed can be plugged in, giving visitors up to date news on the happenings of the museum.

(Next Page: The possibilities and challenges ahead)

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