The Business’ Cheatsheet to Indoor Positioning Technologies


What the post will be about:

  • Summary of the most commonly used indoor positioning technologies
  • In-depth analysis of each of the technologies, available manufacturers and basic installation considerations
  • Most common use cases for indoor positioning

Indoor positioning has been one of the hottest discussion topics during the past year, and for an obvious reason. The usefulness of GPS has been long recognized in mobile applications. It helps your customers in finding your business, it allows you to build targeted services and messages, and to provide more relevant advertisements. When we move indoors, all of the benefits are taken to the next level. With indoor positioning, you are able to guide your customer exactly to the item they are looking for – and to provide them relevant offers or coupons exactly at the right time.

However, whereas outdoors we have the ubiquitous global satellite navigation systems, more commonly known as GPS (and it’s Russian counterpart GLONASS and European Galileo), indoors the situation is more complex.  There are so many choices of technology, and some of which are directly competitive, and that can be overwhelming for business owners when it comes to deciding.

This post addresses that concern. By providing information about the major indoor positioning technologies, analysis of each’s virtues and flaws, we hope to help business owners and marketers to make a more informative decision.

We are going to focus on technologies that can be used with mobile phones and tablets in particular. That leaves out technologies, such as RFID and infra red that are not supported by standard smartphones.  To name a few major choices, one can list Wi-Fi, Near Field Communication (NFC), Bluetooth Low Energy beacons, magnetic positioning, Visible Light Communication (VLC) and many more. Each has its own characteristics that call for real consideration and adaptation to one business’ own needs. We will provide analysis of each choice and further guidance down below.

Summary and Comparison

This section provides you with the specifications, and a brief summary of all the mentioned technologies.

As you may have noticed from the sheer length of this post, the indoor positioning market is quite energetic and can be overwhelming. When deciding which technology to start implementing, one should think carefully about their own needs for indoor positioning system (also known as IPS). Some of the questions before you decide are:

  • How much investment is available for an indoor positioning system?
  • How are your internal technological capabilities?
  • What level of accuracy level is needed? Is it enough to know if the user is in an arbitrary area, or is it necessary that you know exactly where at the venue they are?
 Wi-FiBluetoothNFCGeomagneticVisible LightInertial
DescriptionUsing Wi-Fi hotspots to calculate device’s location.Using BLE beacons that emit Bluetooth signal. Sub-set of RFID. Using small sticker tags that contain small amount of data.Using distortions in the Earth's geomagnetic fields as fingerprintsUse visible light to transmit data and locate devices.Gather data from native sensors (speed sensors, etc.) to figure out position
Hardware requiredNo (apart from WiFi routers)YesYesNoYesNo
Range30 m - kilometres, depending on building infrastructure and antennas2-70 m, depending on configuration and building infrastructure0-5 cmn/aDepending on lamp, line-of-sight to beamn/a
Accuracy5 -150 mWith trilateration 1-2 m0-5 cmOn its own 5-10m accuracy, varies based on phone model.
If some additional hardware is installed, accuracy improves
30 cm – 1 m
Functions offlineNoYesYesYesYesn/a
Functions in the backgroundYesYesYesNoNon/a
ProsCan leverage existing infrastructure..Low-cost hardware and software installation.
Good background functionality.
Low cost stickers and chips available.
Really easy to install and configure.
Good for very accyrate use, such as mobile pay.
Low cost.
Use existing infrastructure.
Good, reliable position info
Good for hybrid solutions – to increase accuracy of other solutions.
ConsIs blocked by walls, concrete, etc.
Not possible with iOS
Require hardware installation.
Require management of beacon fleets.
Short range.
No iOS support.
Requires fingerprinting.
No floor level support.
Functions only in active mode.
First location fix may be very incorrect. To get correct position data, the shopper needs to walk up to 10 meters inside the store. There may be areas inside the venue, where the reading is inaccurate due to similar geomagnetic readings in multiple areas of the venue or interference coming from large electrical or metal objects.
Geomagnetic fields change over time.
Line-of-sight required.
No background functionality.
Still under development.
Only hybrid solutions.
Dependent on sensors quality.
Supported devicesTrilateration only in AndroidiOS and AndroidAndroid only, specific devicesiOS and Android. The device must have a gyroscope and magnetometer. These requirements are fulfilled by most high and mid-range Android phones and iPhones from 4S onwards.iOS and AndroidiOS and Android

In-depth analysis of each technology.

Please click on the tabs to read more.

wifi2Wi-Fi-based Positioning

What is it?

Wi-Fi-based positioning systems (WPS), as it is named, use Wi-Fi access points to infer a user’s geolocation. Some of the more popular methods include using “received signal strength indication” (RSSI) and using Time-of-Flight. Both of these methods take information from the wireless signal, combine that information with trilateration to locate the user.

Is it good?

This choice would be best if your venue already has an expansive network of Wi-Fi access points installed. That will lower installation costs, while also amplifying the signal and making the positioning more correct through mesh networking.

The user experience will be more seamless, as Wi-Fi is already an indispensable part of modern life. However, WPS is not the most accurate method of positioning among those that are analyzed in this whitepaper. Most usually, WPS will need to be combined with at least one other technology to correctly pinpoint a user.

In 2013, Apple acquired WifiSLAM in hopes to improve its indoor positioning capabilities. And in that effort, Apple also established a monopoly for Wi-Fi trilateration/triangulation on iOS. Third-party developers can no longer tweak with WPS for iOS anymore – it is all in the hands of Apple now.

Who provides it?

Again, there are hardly any providers with WPS as a stand-alone positioning system. WPS is almost always used in conjunction with another technology – as hybrid positioning systems are getting more and more advantageous.

Some vendors (listed alphabetically) of WPS packages B2B are:

  • Accuware: They are a relatively new company, and a spin-off from Navizon Inc. (who is a provider of Wi-Fi location databases). Their technology combines GPS, Wi-Fi and cellular phone signals. They base in the UK, and have recently partnered with Quadron to launch video-based IPS as a “turnkey solution for retail analytics.”
  • AlterGeo: They are one of the leaders of this technology in Russia, and globally, with partnerships in Europe and other countries as well. Their specialization is in WiFi, WiMAX, GSM, LTE, IP addresses and network environment.
  • infsoft: infsoft was found in 2006, basing in Germany. They combine WPS with BLE beacons in their various products. They also provide SDKs and APIs for developers. Their notable partnerships include Frankfurt Airport, Vodafone, and Lufthansa.
  • Skyhook: Skyhook was found in 2003, but is still really up-to-date with current technologies. They are venturing with wearable positioning, and their technology combines Wi-Fi with GPS. They have a remarkable network of partners, including Apple, Samsung, Sony and Mapquest. Also worth-mentioning is their “Personas” package, which categorize users into many different personas, making it easier for marketing departments to correctly target groups of users.
  • Qualcomm: I think Qualcomm is famous enough that no further description about the company is needed. IZat is their new product that utilizes Wi-Fi signal combined with the device’s sensor to provide more contextual information about a user device. Qualcomm is also the provider of other positioning solutions including LTE, 3G, 4G (and 5G up next), RFID and more.

If you decide to develop your own positioning infrastructure, Wikipedia provides a quite useful list of public Wi-Fi location databases. Notable names include Radiocells and OpenWLANMap, both are free to use.

How to install it?

As aforementioned, WPS need little extra installation when the wireless access points are already available in the venue. Some small calibration and fingerprinting of the building may be necessary. Each provider has a different approach, and hence you should contact a solution provider for more guidance and information.

Who are using it? To what results?

One success story of WPS is from infsoft, when they partnered with Frankfurt Airport (from Fraport AG) to create a tailored application for visitors to better navigate the area. The application helps with checking-in, finding flight information, and discovering the nearby sites. With information from the application, the airport managers can make informed decisions and optimization on the operation side to improve and enhance visitors’ experience.

Up until now, the application has had hundreds of thousands of downloads, and holds a high ranking in the German Google Play Store and Apple App store.

ble2Bluetooth and BLE Beacons

What is it?

Bluetooth has been quite the ubiquitous technology in today’s devices – being one of the most commonly used wireless standard for data exchange within short distances.

Bluetooth Smart or Bluetooth Low Energy is version 4.0 of Bluetooth, and was released in 2006 by Nokia, then merged into the main standard in 2010. There have been two updates to the standard, version 4.1 in December 2013, and version 4.2 in 2014. Each has incrementally improved the features and energy usage of hosting devices, allowing for wider adoption of this technology. In June 2016, Bluetooth SIG (Special Interest Group) announced Bluetooth 5’s release to happen in late 2016 – early 2017. The new update is expected to increase the accuracy and efficiency of BLE and BLE beacons.

Beacons are small Bluetooth transmitter, each with a unique ID. They used to focus only in proximity (deciding if one thing is near or far from the beacon), but now they can position too, and the capabilities are growing. The signal that beacons transmit can be picked up by any device. However, these signals do not mean anything yet, and need an application to interpret these signals into meaningful data and/or actions.

iBeacon is a beacon standard protocol, introduced by Apple in WWDC 2013. The protocol has become so popular that since then, “iBeacon” has become a noun that refers to beacons. Then, in 2015, Google released their own beacon protocol, named Eddystone, along with a developer platform, and most recently, the Nearby API to enhance proximity use cases with beacons.

Most major beacons manufacturers support both formats, so you don’t have to worry about choosing one and leaving out the other. The state of the beacon market is still constantly changing, and more functionality can be expected.

Is it good?

Beacons allow for fairly accurate, long-lasting and multi-functional indoor positioning. They tend to blend into the background, giving way to enhancement in the user experience (unlike QR codes that disrupt users from their experience flow). And, unlike some may think, beacon transmission is secured, and customer and business data are safe with beacons.

There are certain drawbacks to employing beacons, too. First, it takes initial resources to install and manage a fleet of beacons. Second, beacons need a mobile application to function – Eddystone and Google hope to solve that, but the process is not quite there yet. Third, integrating beacons into an app takes some expert planning and careful consideration.

Who provides it?

The beacon market is active. Major manufacturers include Estimote,, Gimbal and Sensoro. They provide independent beacon transmitters, some with built-in sensors (like accelerometers, gyroscopes and thermometers).

Other manufacturers are trying to integrate beacons into their own hardware as well. For example, General Electric launched a series of LED lighting with beacons and VLC functions (more on VLC later), in 2014. Philips also tried the same thing, with their own series, in the same year.

There are also peripherals in the ecosystem as well, but more on that in the next section.

How to install it?

As we have mentioned, it takes careful planning to start implementing beacons into your marketing campaigns and venues. Have a map of your venue ready, then point out where to install the beacons, how many beacons should be installed, and what effects the beacons will trigger.

There are a few ways you can start integrating beacons into your own application.

  • First, you can use the official documentation from iBeacon or Eddystone. This is possible if you have an in-house development team, but will take some more time.
  • Second, you can ask for your manufacturer’s help: each manufacturer usually has a management platform – which can monitor your beacon fleet, updating triggers and geofence, along with analytics and some other features.
  • Third, you can use third party platforms, who provide richer features to manage and start marketing with your beacons. This is where we,, come into play.

After that, measure the effectiveness of your campaigns then optimize to improve user experience. You can use your own data or third-party platform data for this, but this is still not to be neglected at any cost.

Who are using it? To what results?

Since the launch of iBeacon in 2013, there have been numerous projects involving iBeacons, and media coverage on the subject is abundant, partly because it is an all-new and exciting field.

For example, in 2013, Apple pioneered among their own retail stores, and the number of deployed beacons keeps on growing. The Major League Baseball also tried by allowing Passbook ticketing integration with iBeacon, making it easier for visiting spectators to enter the stadium.

In 2014, American Eagles started installing iBeacons in about 100 of its stores, mostly to give customers of promotion deals and product info. Macy’s did the same thing, except that iBeacons were used in sync with Apple Pay.

In 2015, a fleet of 11000 beacon units emerged in China – Sensoro provided both the hardware and software. The fleet “brought in 11 million dollars in revenue with a conversion rate up to 63%”. Not much later on, Columbus became the first beacon-iBeacon city (in the US, and most likely the world) with the help of Piper – in an initiative called “Columbus’ Safe City”.

In 2016, there were Hamad International Airport in Qatar, Adelaide Zoo in Australia, Verizon in you-already-know-where, and so many more.

As I’ve said, beacons have been receiving a lot of buzz, partly was because it was new, and partly was because It is still growing fast.

Here’s some statistics involving retail (from BeaconStac blog) to end this section: with beacons, 59% customers feel more engaged, and 53% retailers feel their content are more relevant.

Near Field Communication

What is it?

It is really hard to talk about Near-field Communication (NFC) without touching back a bit on RFID.

From a technical perspective, NFC is a sub-set of RFID. As you may remember, RFID can be categorized by signal frequency, into low, high and ultra-high frequency RFID. NFC builds on RFID hardware and protocols, using high frequency signals to transfer data. Both technologies use devices with at least one playing the role of “tag” and the other, “reader”.

However, there would still be some fundamental differences – stemming from the fact that NFC is more specialized to some functions than others.

  • First of all, NFC is only effective for transmission within centimeters of distance, while RFID can cover areas of up to 100 meters at a time.
  • Second, NFC allows for two-way communication between devices, one single device can either be a tag or a reader. This gives a different type of communication flexibility compared to RFID.
  • Third, NFC is designed with security in mind – to aid in contactless payment – one of its main use cases.

However, rarely have people talked about using NFC as an indoor positioning solution, more as a proximity solution. That means, with NFC, we cannot find the blue dot, but only know whether or not the user is close to one specific area (in this case, within centimeters of the NFC tag).

For deeper research, you can refer to NFC Forum, who provides an abundance of resources, white papers, research and best practices – surrounding the NFC and proximity space.

Is it good?

As have been mentioned above, NFC is developed to be used for indoor positioning, but for proximity sensing. When two devices (both with NFC enabled) touch each other, data transmission is quick and easy. The amount of data being transmitted cannot be too large – ranging from 96 bytes to 8192 bytes (or 8 kB). The typical kinds of data include (but are not limited to): credit/debit card profiles, website URLs, small HTMLs, contact information or just plain text. With some encoding, a NFC tag can also trigger certain changes in settings (making the phone go silent, configure the Wi-Fi settings to authenticate a phone into a Wi-Fi network, etc.), in texting and calling, in applications and web services. Again, note that the tags do not contain all these data, they are more like a gateway or a key into these actions.

There are some security concerns regarding NFC. Since NFC operates in such close distance, attackers may have a hard time intercepting the signals. However, like any other technologies, NFC is not hack-proof, there are ways to hack an NFC smartphone or tag, despite how painstaking it may be. Still, the technology is quite young and developing fast, so countermeasures are to be expected.

There have been experiments with NFC as an indoor way-finding solution as well. NFC tags can be placed strategically at highly-frequented venue points, then users can tap these tags, update their current location and receive directions to their preferred destination. This method is not yet mature, and requires NFC infrastructure to be set up, which is why its commercial adaptation is slow. However, NFC tags are very cheap compared to other technologies listed above, and they don’t require a mobile application to function, which improves the scalability and adaptability.

Another noteworthy issue with NFC is in smartphone support standards. Currently, most new Android phones have NFC hardware built in – one list can be found here. On the other hand, Apple has yet to provide support for NFC, with iPhone 6 and 6S supporting only one limited feature of NFC: card-emulation – turning the iPhone into a credit/debit card for Apple Pay.

With all that in mind, again, it is worth mentioning that NFC has some important use cases that differentiate it from other technologies, and is worth considering if your goal is to provide quick and (relatively) safe information transmission.

Who provides it?

The NFC space in general is quite active – but NFC as an indoor location and/or positioning service is not.

Large chip providers range from enterprise-focuses to more niche-focused. The big names are familiar, including Qualcomm and Broadcom. Holding a large share of the market is NXP Semiconductors, manufacturing and distributing NFC-compliant chips to Intel, Amazon, Xiaomi, and even Qualcomm.

And since NFC is a sub-set of RFID, some RFID providers also provide NFC products. The names include Zebra and Impinj. These suppliers tailor more to NFC premade tags and readers, which are more suitable for SMEs looking for quick set-up solutions to apply in sales and marketing operations. Other vendors in this category are HID Global, SAG Group and GotoTags.

How to install it?

For SMEs, there are two main ways NFC can be implemented into the business.

  • First, and also the most prominent use of NFC, businesses can integrate contactless payment and mobile payment with NFC. To do this, an infrastructure of NFC payment terminals must be installed – which are provided exclusively by the aforementioned vendors.
    The technical aspects of these terminals is quite complicated, varied and out of this white paper’s scope – please refer to your preferred vendor’s website for more information and guidance.
    Please also notice that, contactless payment is not restricted to cashiers – but is also applicable in parking payment, ticketing and access granting at events.
  • Second, NFC tags can be used to provide interactive information to the end-users. A network of NFC tags should be installed (again, from the vendors above) and placed according to a premade marketing strategy.
    Most of the time, the vendors will aid in the installation and data encoding of such tags. However, to further cut costs, some businesses may choose to code in the data themselves – which can be accomplished with the aid of an NFC application.
    Again, technology concern should always be top of mind – so as to protect both the businesses and the customers.

This opens up a wealth of use cases, which can be further explored in this white paper from NFC Forum.

Who are using it? To what results?

Orange is one of the global leaders in telecommunication technology. After rolling out NFC across Europe in 2011 – together with Quick Tap NFC mobile wallet, in 2012, Orange pushed on and launched Quick Tap Treat, in partnership with EAT food chain. Quick Tap Treat is an NFC loyalty service that leverage NFC throughout 114 EAT stores in 2012. According to Proxama, EAT customers can tap their phone on smart posters and start spinning a “wheel of fortune” for a gift that can be redeemed in-store.

In only two months after launching, there were 24614 transactions. 60% of customers also purchased extra items when redeeming their gifts. The original case study from Proxama can be found here.

ida2Magnetic Positioning

What is it?

Magnetic positioning uses geomagnetic (the Earth’s own magnetic field) and the user device’s magnetic sensor (this is available in most smartphones and tablets) to locate that user within a map.

Modern building materials usually distort the Earth’s normal magnetic field, thus creating a unique pattern inside each building – the building’s own magnetic field (termed “magnetic fingerprint), one may say. The magnetic sensors can detect and respond to fluctuations in a building’s magnetic field, enabling accurate indoor positioning – or, in simpler words, allowing the “blue dot”.

Is it good?

Generally, magnetic positioning is one of the most cost-effective and least friction method for indoor positioning. It requires little to no hardware, and it does not need trained personnel for deployment. Henceforth, it holds great potential for wide adoption, for both business and consumer usage.

There is only one small flaw in geomagnetic indoor location: the measurement and mapping of magnetic fingerprint must be done beforehand. The better the mapping, the more accurate the positioning.

Who provides it?

IndoorAtlas is the most prominent vendor for magnetic positioning solution on the market right now.

The company was found by Professor Janne Haverinen, with two HQs in Oulu, Finland and Mountain View, California in 2012. It has received quite a lot of publicity from the media, as well as attention from the industry. Its customers include Baidu China, Yahoo! Japan, Esri UK and more.

How to install it?

Please note that these installation steps take reference from IndoorAtlas’s own guide. The required tools are: a device with accelerometer, gyroscope and compass, and a high-definition map of the building or venue (.PNG file type recommended).

  1. Uploading and fitting the venue map to the venue itself;
  2. Calibrating your device: rotating your device around its axes;
  3. Recording a walking path and testing the positioning;
  4. Repeat for other walking paths and optimizing.

In the beginning, the positioning may be jiggery. But as the device adapt to the building’s own fingerprint, the positioning gets more stable and accurate.

Who are using it? To what results?

One customer story from IndoorAtlas’s website is from Baidu China – the nation’s leading search portal.

Baidu launched indoor maps in its many venues in 2011, and they needed accurate indoor positioning to enhance user experience. The positioning system should be deployed at a low-cost, while being highly effective and immersive, with scalability.

Since IndoorAtlas’s partnership with Baidu Maps, 270 million users are reached monthly, in many different types of venues including malls and airports.

Visible Light Communication

What is it?

Visible light communication” (VLC) is quite similar to most of the technologies mentioned above, in the method of determining users’ position indoor: based on signal strength, signal arrival time, signal angles and so on. But in this case, the signal is visible light – well, the light that we humans can see.

By using visible light, VLC can leverage already well-established infrastructure to transmit information. Transmitter are normal lamps, light bulbs, LEDs or even OLEDs (organic LEDs). Receivers are photodiodes that are installed in many new smart devices.

The current problem with VLC is the lack of a common protocol for transmission and reception of information. However, many developments are already in place.

Is it good?

As written above, there have been positive advancements in VLC. The transmit rate for VLC is increasing. In 2010, the rate was 500Mb/s, accomplished by scientific research and by Siemens (through a press release). In 2014-2015, the transmit rate increased to Gbs/s, and the technology is still being improved. The fact that VLC uses visible light enables less friction in adoption of the technology. Li-Fi -the still under-development replacement of Wi-Fi – in the future can be used to locate users in a retail venue.

However, not all mobile phones contain a photodiode that can detect and interpret light into meaningful information. And even if the phone contains a photodiode, VLC positioning still relies on a mobile app to convert the lighting system’s signal into positioning data for users. Range is also a problem with VLC – current solutions only support ranges up to tens of feet.

In 2011, Professor Harald Haas demonstrated Li-Fi in his speech at TED Conference. In 2014, ABI Research group forecasted that “LED and VLC could be the key to unlocking the $5 billion indoor location market”.  Most recently, Pure Li-fi secured £7 million in Series B funding to commercialize the product, as per reported on TechCrunch. Adoption of the technology may not yet be here now, but it is expected.

Who provides it? And who are using it?

There have been some notable providers of VLC, both as a positioning technology and as a data transmission medium.

MOMO by Axrtek is one such. The company is relatively new, and is a startup venture based in Silicon Valley, California. The technology uses LED and a cloud database system to transmit data to devices with built-in VLC transceivers.

Electronics corporates are also starting to provide VLC solutions. In 2015, Philips provided Carrefour with LED lighting system to send tailored push notifications and deals to browsing customers. General Electrics also provides their own indoor VLC solution. Qualcomm is another player in this field with their Lumicast.

Also worth noticing are Oledcomm and Luciom, each with their own specialty in VLC and Li-Fi. Please visit their websites for more information.

How to install it?

Current solutions are based on a LED lighting systems, because LED transmit with higher quality and less energy – so a complete reset of the lighting infrastructure is needed to start VLC and/or VLC-based positioning. LED are also easily programmable – which makes the data transmission process effortless.

An integration between pre-existing app with light interpreting functionality is also necessary. There has yet to be fully-developed software development aid available for this yet, and further costs may be needed to successfully implement the technology.

Inertial Navigation

What is it?

Inertial navigation is an age-old technology, and has been used long ago in the military, science, space exploration and many other areas. Ships, aircraft, and submarines are all possible users of this technology.

In physics, “inertia” refers to the tendency to keep moving – when a car is running fast, it tends to skid when the driver suddenly stomps on the brakes. Similarly, an inertial navigation system (INS) measures acceleration (with accelerometers) and angle speed (with gyroscopes) to pinpoint a position.

Pedestrian deduced/dead reckoning (PDR) is the technique usually associated with inertial navigation. Dead reckoning means interpreting the current position based on past positions, speed, and angle. And in turn, PDR means… do that by walking.

Is it good?

There seems to be little use for INS (along with PDR) in business marketing. The reason is that, as a stand-alone technology, they do not provide enough information and accuracy at a cost-effective enough manner for commercial adoption.

However, when coupled with Wi-Fi, geomagnetic or beacons, INS tends to increase positioning accuracy. Which is why there are few companies that provide INS on its own as an indoor navigation solution.

Who provides it?

As you may have noticed already from the IndoorAtlas installation guide, IndoorAtlas also uses PDR in conjunction with their geomagnetic technology.

Google Maps, along with their Indoor Maps, uses the combination of INS and GPS. This option is free, and very notable. However, the process has been slow for the last 3 years – but with the recent announcement of Project Tango (which hopes to incorporate 3D, VR and AR into mapping), business owners can start joining Google in hope of a bright future.

Indoor Spirit is another vendor that provides PDR to retailers, galleries, parking spaces and other businesses. Again, there has been little development or news media coverage of the company. All information about the company are published on their website.

How to install it?

There seems to be yet any significant vendors using these technologies distinctly as indoor navigation. Hence, we are sorry that there is no installation guides or requirements in this part.

Who are using it? To what results?

The list of venues with Google Indoor Maps installed can be found on Google’s support site. More specific case studies of Google Indoor Maps can be found here.

One note-worthy case study is of MGM Resorts International, who owns 10 different properties across Las Vegas, which equals to about 3 million square feet of conventional space. No further information about interactive functions with the map can be found.

And that’s about it!

We hope this post has given you what you need. If there is anything you would like to add or tweak, please feel free to drop us a line.