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Navigating the Latest Technologies in Indoor Wayfinding

The larger the building, the more difficult it is for people to get where they need to go. Nowhere is that problem more apparent than in Las Vegas’ hotels, each a labyrinth of towers, casinos, shopping centers, and convention centers. Much of the difficulties of finding your way around casinos is by design, the longer it takes you to get to your destination, the more likely you are to gamble. But getting lost when you’re in most building can have serious implications. Being late for a meeting because you couldn’t find the place isn’t a good look—for the person or the building. Digital wayfinding technology is helping people get where they’re going faster while freeing up on-site staff from giving directions. Figuring out a better way to do interior wayfinding makes buildings more efficient, provides a better user experience, and can form the backbone of location analytics. Collecting anonymous wayfinding data as people move through space can help owners and managers better understand how that space is being used. Digital wayfinding can also be a crucial component of access control, directing guests to the proper checkpoints. 

“Digital wayfinding is an instrumental part of making a workplace more accommodating. The larger the facilities and the more visitors it welcomes, the higher the demand for wayfinding kiosks and signage,” SpaceIQ director of engineering Aleks Sheynkman wrote. 

Most interior wayfinding relies on physical signage, basically arrows pointing you in the general direction of what you’re seeking. If you are lucky, a map may be posted in a lobby next to a directory. If you are even luckier, there is a manned information desk. Physical signage and on-site staff work because GPS doesn’t. A better solution to wayfinding problems must be easier, quicker, and more accurate than asking someone. Large facilities that need wayfinding typically adversely impact cellular reception and GPS tracking, making turn-by-turn navigation with your smartphone next to impossible. Figuring out a better way to do interior wayfinding is a problem of getting guests connected. A true solution to wayfinding problems must be easier, quicker, and more accurate than asking someone. 

Interior wayfinding technology relies on three main systems. WiFi is the most obvious, able to triangulate someones’ location by tracking the distance between WiFi points and the user’s mobile device. With WiFi access guests can pull up an interior map that can help guide them to their destination. That typically requires guests to join the WiFi and for them to know where the relevant wayfinding tool is accessible, either through an app or a website (which can be tricky for some). WiFi-enabled turn-by-turn navigation in buildings requires some setup that may work for frequent guests but first-time visitors may not want to go through the hassle of accessing the wayfinding once they’re on-site. This is known as server-side positioning, where a device is receiving data from a server to understand its location, which can be slowed by unreliable connections. Precision is not WiFi’s strong suit unless significant investments are made in a facility’s WiFi infrastructure. 

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tags are another form of interior wayfinding technology that looks to difficulties of scaling WiFi. BLE tags are more cost-effective for positioning than WiFi access points, allowing buildings to have more of them. They are the most common form of interior wayfinding infrastructure. BLE beacons typically operate on a battery with low electric signals. The larger the building, the bigger the maintenance issue BLE beacons become. Battery-powered BLE tags and beacons need to have their batteries replaced every year or so. BLE tags may be more precise, but the technology still has all the other user-based problems inherent to WiFi-based interior wayfinding. 

Using the Earth’s magnetic field for interior wayfinding is possible with technology like IPera. With its partners, IPera developed technology that can use a smartphone’s compass sensor to map interiors by tracking magnetic anomalies. The sensor shares the information with the software, which creates an interior map. As more smartphones pass through the space and use the software, the more accurate it gets. Eventually, geomagnetic mapping can get up to 97 percent accuracy within a few meters. The problem is geomagnetic wayfinding doesn’t work well vertically. Barometric sensors can help map verticality but they can often be misleading, according to IPera. To overcome those obstacles, facilities can deploy two types of tech simultaneously, using BLE tags near elevators to indicate to geomagnetic software when a device is changing floors or programming the software itself to prompt users to input a floor change when in a lift area. 

Because none of the wayfinding technologies are perfect, the best solutions are some combination of all three. The hardest part is getting visitors to download the app. As easy as that might sound, it is quite a barrier to overcome. The average smart phone user downloads zero apps per month. Digital signage could be the answer. Instead of doing wayfinding on a user’s personal device, they may not want to use or download an app or join public WiFi, interactive digital maps and kiosks can be placed throughout facilities. A new breed of digital kiosk can give visitors directions upon arrival, sending users an email with their specific directions. 

As our buildings grow larger and more complex, interior wayfinding becomes more critical. Interior positioning technology still needs massive improvement to make it as seamless as GPS. The next frontier for interior wayfinding is displaying directions through augmented reality, using a smartphone’s camera to show a clear path for the user to follow. “It’s the true way to provide directions more accurately and it gives the individual a better sense of navigational orientation,” Tomer Mann, EVP of Global Sales and Operations at 22Miles said at a recent Digital Sign Expo. “There is a big future for these AR capabilities.”’

Superimposing directions on someone’s real-world view is the future of all forms of wayfinding. Instead of constantly glancing at your phone while driving or walking, smart glasses could provide seamless directions in your field of view. Several major facilities are pioneering AR signage and wayfinding, Gatwick Airport outside London has 2,000 BLE beacons and an app with AR wayfinding that can direct travelers to their gate. 

Casinos in Las Vegas may want you to get lost, but the vast majority of owners and facility managers do not. Interior wayfinding is one area of our daily lives that PropTech can significantly improve. Architects and developers are designing and building larger, taller, and more complex buildings of all types. It’s the property industry’s responsibility to ensure they are easily navigable as well.

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