Location-based apps' next frontier: Indoors

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It's a recent Saturday and I'm searching for Spider-Man -- the comics version -- at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. Entering the busy shop across the street from the famous university, one must shuffle carefully through the entrance to avoid bumping into other shoppers.

This retail space also is crowded visually -- displays confront a consumer from every direction -- and it's not immediately clear where the comic books are. Rather than asking for help at the information desk, I take out my iPhone 5C, open an app called AisleConnect and log in. Tapping letters into a search box in the "shop" section of the app returns several titles featuring Peter Parker. Touching "location" on the app shows a map of the store's layout, with highlighted areas indicating the shelves that house the remainders. Sure enough, in the store's basement stacks, there is Spidey among the superheroes in print.

As a straightforward exercise, this on-site search illustrates a marriage of mobile technologies -- the smartphone, the telecommunications network, the app developer's interface -- with a retailer's IT systems, including updated inventory data, mapped to the store's layout. It's also one part of a much bigger picture.

The ubiquity of smartphones and end-users' familiarity with mapping apps has made finding one's way by car or public transit and on foot a common occurrence. But systems that help us find our way and interact with items indoors, and within defined campus boundaries -- places like colleges, convention centers, medical areas, sports stadiums, shopping malls and airports -- are entering a growth phase.

ABI Research estimates that 30,000 sites installed indoor location projects in 2014, across a range of industries. The firm says these systems will continue to spread and, by 2018, some 800 million smartphone users will be toting applications that interact with indoor location data. Experts cite the widespread installation of cellular and Wi-Fi networks, emerging wireless technologies like Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and the availability of low-cost sensors as factors that will help these applications proliferate.

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