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The Boston Globe

Business

INNOVATION ECONOMY

Moving mapping technology indoors

We’ve all had the experience of trying to find a particular product in a big box store apparently devoid of employees, or roaming the aisles of a vast convention center searching for a booth. While GPS displays in our cars or mapping apps on our phones can guide us to the parking lot, once you step inside, you’re in terra incognita.

The next big nut to crack in the navigation business is “indoor positioning,’’ which can solve problems as crucial as helping a fire chief understand where firefighters are within a burning building or as mundane as leading you to an ATM in an unfamiliar airport.

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A Cambridge start-up called ByteLight is working on a solution that could be as simple as screwing in a light bulb. The company was spawned by Boston University’s Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center.

ByteLight hasn’t yet filed patents, so the founders won’t be specific about its technology, but the company is planning to use LED bulbs as a kind of indoor GPS satellite system. At the heart of an LED bulb is a cluster of light-emitting microchips, which can be programmed to flicker in a certain pattern invisible to the naked eye. But that pattern, viewed by the cameras built into most cellphones, would serve as a kind of address.

If the camera could see two or three of the bulbs above, it could get a very accurate fix on where you’re standing.

“LED lights are getting less expensive every day,’’ says cofounder Dan Ryan, “and location-based services are getting more important. Those are the two trends we’re trying to leverage.’’ Ryan says the company thinks its technology could be useful in places like museums, where you might use your mobile phone to find a particular piece of art.

But the company could also build its own devices that would continually collect positioning information from LED bulbs and relay it to a central station, perhaps to keep tabs on an expensive piece of equipment in a hospital, or a robot roaming through a factory. ByteLight thinks it will be able to determine a user’s - or a robot’s - position within 1 or 2 meters.

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The three-person company hasn’t yet started to seek funding. “Right now, we’re just building’’ the necessary hardware and software, says Ryan.

Point Inside, a Seattle start-up, is a bit further along. The company has 29 employees, and has raised just over $2 million. But it is taking a different approach, trying to figure out where you are by reading the radio signals from Wi-Fi networks in a store, combined with information about your movements that are generated by the built-in accelerometer sensor in most smartphones.

Point Inside marketing executive Todd Sherman says the system is accurate to about 9 meters. (That’s a long stretch of shelving, if you’re looking for a particular product.)

Meijer, a Midwestern retailer, has been using the technology in its stores, enabling shoppers to create a shopping list on their phones before they arrive, and get a customized map that will guide them to the items on it. There’s also, of course, a marketing angle.

“If you put together a shopping list,’’ says Sherman, “we can tell when you’re getting close to the store and pop up a message that says, ‘If you come in today, we have a 20 percent discount for you.’ ’’ The system can also present offers for particular products located near where you’re standing.

Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have been thinking about the challenges of indoor positioning since a warehouse fire in Worcester killed six firefighters in 1999. Getting lost in a building is one of the biggest dangers of the occupation, says WPI professor R. James Duckworth, but firefighters may not have maps - or current maps - of every structure they encounter.

WPI researchers have been developing and testing what they call the Precision Personnel Locator. It uses a small wireless device, about the size of walkie-talkie, that attaches to a firefighter’s breathing apparatus. That device communicates with two or more receivers on the firetrucks. The receivers send information about each firefighter’s location to a ruggedized laptop that would be used by the incident commander.

“On the screen, you can see a kind of breadcrumb trail of pixels,’’ says WPI professor David Cyganski. “If someone gets lost, they can be talked back.’’ The WPI research has been funded by grants from government agencies like the Department of Justice and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

High-priced, custom-built systems for fire departments or the military could come first, given the obvious benefits. But like every technology that hasn’t yet been perfected, some still have questions about how useful indoor positioning will be for the average citizen, and what business models might support it.

“There’s really no burning imperative to provide these services,’’ says Greg Stirling, a senior analyst for Opus Research in San Francisco, “though it would be nice to have them if they existed.’’ (Sort of like Wi-Fi in hotel rooms, once a luxury and now a necessity?)

Stirling also questions whether marketers will feel there’s enough value in sending consumers messages on their mobile phones to try to persuade them to buy one brand of baked beans over another. “Getting the chief marketing officer of a consumer goods company interested in the person standing in Aisle 4 is really hard,’’ he says. “Often, their goal is something that has breadth and reach and scale.’’

But indoor positioning feels inevitable to me, especially when I find myself roaming the aisles of a big box store, or trying to catch a train at an unfamiliar station. As Duckworth, the WPI professor, puts it, “GPS has really set an expectation for people: I know where I am outside, so why can’t I get the same information inside?’’

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

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