Indoor navigation—the use of sensors and various local radio signals to help smart phones figure out where they are inside a mall, hotel, museum, or other large building—started getting very interesting last year, when a number of consumer electronics and communications companies joined forces to start working on an indoor navigation standard. Apple was not part of that group; in the fall the company launched its own general navigation software that didn’t include an indoor component. Probably a good thing, given all the other bugs in that software that Apple had to deal with.
At the time, some analysts suggested that Apple might be shopping around for a little indoor navigation startup to acquire. This week, Apple apparently found what it was looking for, acquiring Palo Alto’s WiFiSLAM, an alumni of Stanford’s StartX incubator, for $20 million. WiFiSLAM, started by a group of recent Stanford graduates and Google alumni, is just two years old; it uses existing Wi-Fi signals in a building and supplements those with what it calls trajectories. Trajectories are paths that it calculates from the existing sensors on phones as a user walks around a building, particularly, accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers. It saves these paths anonymously, and combines them, using pattern recognition techniques, to create maps of buildings. WiFiSLAM’s technology makes app users mapmakers, with their contributions used to make maps more accurate.
Meanwhile, Samsung is including pressure sensors in its Galaxy S4 form, according to business analytics company IHS. This means that phones will be able to tell how high they are in a building, not just in which direction a user is walking. Samsung is a bit ahead of the curve, IHS projects that Apple will add pressure sensors to its phones sometime next year.
Apple, it turns out, wasn’t the only established company to go shopping in Palo Alto in the past week or two. On 15 March Palo Alto startup Orchestra, another two-year-old company, was picked up by Dropbox for a rumored $100 million in cash and stock. Orchestra makes Mailbox, an app that simplifies email management on smart phones. And on 22 March, Trip Advisor announced that it had acquired Tiny Post, a company that makes an app used to add text to photos. Tiny Post’s app went viral when users began creating clever posters and sharing them on Facebook. No word yet on how much Trip Advisor spent for Tiny Post, also about two years old.
Video below: WiFiSLAM cofounder Joseph Huang explains the technology.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.