Indoor navigation & the iBeacon myth

Not a single article is published without linking iBeacons to a successful deployment of an indoor navigation system. But, is that a true conclusion?

We would like to outline a couple of reasons why decisions makers at institutes should rethink the deployment of iBeacons when introducing an indoor navigation system inside their building.


1: Beacons just say "yes" or "no"

First thing people have to keep in mind is that beacons don't tell you your position; they just say "Yes" or "No". 

iBeacons notice when your smartphone is entering the beacon. A beacons can have a reach of around 25-50 meters (perhaps more) and once your phone is in their reach, it simply returns a value "Yes (you are in my reach)". And if they tell you nothing, it is a "No (you are not within my reach"

The inaccuracy can be twice the radius of the circle around the beacon, which can be up to 50-100 meters.

There are over 170 companies developing technologies for indoor location positioning, enabling phones to track their locations inside malls, stores, offices, hospitals, airports and more. Not a week goes by without announcements being released of new deployments of indoor location technology
— (Grizzly Analytics)


2: inaccurate positioning and wayfinding information

Thanks to triangulation or trilateration calculations, the technology is there to determine the the position of a user with an accuracy of just 1-2 meters. That would be great for indoor navigation you could say. However, you have to keep in mind the following:

Trilateration and triangulation calculations are based on the received signal strength from three beacons. 

Trying to do trilateration or triangulation will always yield in bad results due to the physics behind radio signals. There is no linear relationship between the radio signal measured at the receiver (smartphone) and the distance between the smartphone and iBeacon. While this might be true in an ideal situation like a simple free space, it will not be the case in the real world. As soon as you have walls, vegetation, furniture or other items in the vicinity, the radio signal will be affected by reflection, absorptions, etc.  It is even worse, if the user is standing in beteen the iBeacon and the smartphone as the body of the user will absorb most of the signal coming from the iBeacon. So, one can only imagine what happens in a busy environment like malls, exhibitions, hospitals, universities, etc. where lots of people are walking around and create huge interference on radio signals resulting in inaccurate and inconsistent positioning.

But most of all, map based navigation (a.k.a. 'blue dot'-navigation) is not an ideal interface for wayfinding purposes. It could bring value in simple venues, but in complex venues like hospitals, airports, universities, etc, studies have showed that blue-dot navigation is certainly not the way to go. So, why bother to cover the whole venue with beacons?


3: deploying and customizing these systems takes a lot of time and effort

It takes a lot of time to install a set of beacons to cover the whole indoor area. This might be not such a big issue for smaller open spaces, but when you want to install iBeacons to cover every position in a hospital, university, airport, etc. that is just a nightmare as you might need hundreds, perhaps thousands of beacons. Filling all the gaps requires intensive iterative geo-analysis and the costs of the hardware and the deployment of the hardware may easily ruin your business case.


How can iBeacons enhance indoor navigation?

iBeacons can still be interesting to use in an indoor navigation system setup. It can be a good idea to install iBeacons at key spots, like elevators or clinic desks, entrances and exits, etc to automatically locate the user when starting a navigation. During navigation, there is no need for real time positioning when using an indoor navigation system that is based on photo - landmark navigation. 

For venues that have a simple grid layout and where photo navigation is impossible to implement like non-permanent venue's as exhibitions or trade shows, the venue owner can consider beacon supported indoor navigation. Visitors can be guided easily from junction to junction.

Always keep the user in mind, technology comes second. The experience of the visitor in the building is what matters. Indoor Navigation is always subordinate. If the user does not notice it, than it just works.