You know how your GPS doesn't work unless you have a direct view of the sky? Uh huh. Well that makes GPS pretty useless when you're trying to find something or somebody (or make it easy for someone to find you) inside a building, like a hotel, train station or airport. I can think of quite a few times when I've needed to locate someone in a large crowd--an overhead view of the scene with my contact's location blinking would have been extremely helpful, had such an app existed.
Of course this is a natural app for mobile devices, including netbooks like Nokia's new Booklet 3G. And very likely one that mobile consumers will pay money for.
Nokia thinks so too. In fact it is just this type of location-aware service that Nokia hopes will give it an edge in the super-competitive world of mobile devices and applications. Nokia wants to "index" the real world the way Google indexed the online world. And Nokia's already off to a good start, having acquired several mapping/geolocation services, including Navteq, the world's largest mapping database.
I spoke to Nokia VP of social location services Michael Halbherr about indoor location services here today, and he said Nokia will likely roll out new indoor location services on mobile devices in about two years. Nokia's location-based service app package (sold under the brand "Ovi") currently includes mapping, driving directions and a pedestrian guide (maps and directions for people on foot.)
But detecting location inside buildings involves a totally different approach than collecting outside location data. And I get the feeling that Nokia's engineers are still figuring out the details.
Halbherr explains that in order to map (and model) the inside of buildings, Nokia will rely on GPS, inside cellular base stations (installed by the wireless carriers), and inside Wi-Fi hotspots. Each time a Nokia device approaches a building it will communicate with GPS satellite until the moment it gets inside the door, then it will begin communicating with the cellular and Wi-Fi base stations inside. By triangulating the device's position relative to the GPS satellite outside the building, and to all the cellular and Wi-Fi hotspots inside, Nokia will be able to associate the device with a specific cell (areas 10 meters or less) as it moves around inside the building.
All of this data is sent to a database, which then pieces together a 3D picture of the insides of buildings everywhere. I'm told that Nokia devices around the world are already collecting this information (just the raw location data--nothing about individual users). Halbherr told me the information needed to map and model the inside of buildings can also be collected by humans proactively walking through the buildings establishing location, similar to the way cars fitted with cameras cruised through city streets gathering the images we see in Google Street Views.
Google is also creating such an inside mapping database, I'm told, but Nokia may have an advantage because of the millions of handsets it already has out in the wild collecting data.
Nokia has already collaborated with Facebook on an app called Ovi Lifecast that mixes real-time location information with social networking features. Here's the demo: