Inside Is A New Indoor-Location Platform That Uses Your Phone’s Camera To Figure Where In The Mall You Are

Inside is a new indoor positioning technology, being launched today in beta by Israeli startup Shopcloud, that claims to be able to locate a smartphone user to within a meter (or less) of where they’re wandering under cover.

The system relies on existing smartphone hardware, such as the camera and gyro sensors, to power its location pinpointing mechanism, rather than triangulating via Wi-Fi (which Shopcloud argues does not scale for venues with many people in them).

This means Inside can also function when a smartphone is in air-plane mode. It also does not require additional transmitter hardware to be installed in venues — so it’s not following the Apple iBeacon route.

“We’re basically looking at how humans navigate, and how the natural human navigation works,” says Michael Bar Zeev, VP of product, at the startup. “We use the [smartphone] device’s cameras, through computer vision algorithms, to understand the spacial data around us and then position us super accurately. That’s the first method we use.

“As soon as we’re positioned, we can begin using the sensors to track the person’s movement. We have a learning system that basically understands your unique fingerprint. Every person moves very differently. People have different output coming from the gyro, and different output coming from accelerometers. People have different walks themselves. We employ a learning system that understands and learns you in this process, it keeps on learning you all the time.”

Shopcloud was founded back in 2012 and is backed by $700,000 from private investors including New Zealand entrepreneur Jeremy Moon, along with $1.3 million in licensing fees it’s earned from a digital platform it built for individual retailers to let customers in their bricks and mortar shops navigate the products on display — and even pay for them — via an app.

That initial product play provided the inspiration for Shopcloud to expand out to tackle indoor location in general, says CEO Gil Devora, as it found there wasn’t a way to do all the things retailers were after. (Shopcloud’s debut customer for that platform has not yet been announced, as he says the global retailer wants to keep its powder dry til launch).

Returning to Inside, which is launching today, the platform identifies a smartphone user’s location by relying on the phone hardware already in their hand/pocket, with no additional transmitter tech required to be installed at the indoor location to power it.

Venues do have to be mapped before Inside can function, though, but Shopcloud is not charging location owners to do this, as Devora tells TechCrunch it’s hoping to scale up to capture a sizeable user base before deciding which way to jump on the business model front.

While it’s taking a ‘build Inside out and the monetisation strategy will come’ approach to the business model, Devora speculates that future options for generating revenue could focus on retailers (i.e. things like pushing offers at users — and factoring in opportunities created by Inside’s sub-meter accuracy enabling it to know when a user is standing by a cash register, for instance).

Or it could focus on more practical use-cases such as locating ATMs, or helping people find where they parked their car. The current version of the Inside app, for instance, has a neat ATM locator feature.

Many companies are of course attacking the challenge of indoor location positioning, to fill GPS’ black holes with meaningful data. The lucrative potential for whoever cracks the problem of figuring out where exactly human meat-bags are wandering indoors is obvious: the chance to push specific offers their way as they shuffle past certain stores, say. Or, taking things even more granular, as people pass certain shelves.

Quantified bricks and mortar commerce is where it’s all headed. Apple has shown clear interest in the retail potential of indoor location positioning via its iBeacon system. Google is also evidently keen on getting eyes indoors, having continued to expand the mapping of indoor locations with its Street View cameras (even if its retail vision for indoor location tech isn’t as clear-cut as Apple’s quite yet).

Despite some very hefty rivals, Shopcloud reckons it has a chance at building traction in a still nascent space with its platform agnostic mobile system (albeit smartphones need the necessary camera & sensors for Inside to work) — and owing to its proprietary (and patented) indoor location pinpointing algorithms.

“We know that there’s a place for a lot of companies in this field,” says Devora. “We’re trying to focus on giving the best experience. Not only thinking about the technology… We’re going to be one app that you can navigate, it could be in hospitals, it could be airports, it could be shopping malls, it could be universities. And it’s easy to implement. iBeacon is expensive.”

How exactly does Inside work? The startup isn’t keen on giving too many details away at this point but says it’s identifying user location via a series of signals (six in all) drawn from data gathered via existing smartphone hardware, coupled with processing done by its own propriety algorithms.

One portion of the Inside technology is related to the computer vision field — it functions by using the phone’s cameras to locate visible objects in a mapped interior as orientation points, much as the human eye seeks out recognisable landmarks to lock on to for orientation. Another portion functions in a similar fashion to an optical mouse, according to Bar Zeev — although he’s wary of publicly providing more detail to avoid giving the competition any kind of jump on their techniques (but did provide further explanation to TechCrunch).

The system is also doing motion tracking of smartphone users’ gait, again using sensors already embedded in phones, coupled with its own data processing. This allows it to figure out which direction the user is walking in so the technology doesn’t have to be constantly ‘looking around’ via the camera. So the technology involves a concert of optical and motion signals, probed and processed in a sequence that let’s the platform pinpoint location to (currently) around one meter’s accuracy, and to sub-one meter level in future. And it does so in a way that apparently does not quickly drain the smartphone’s battery.

TechCrunch saw a demo of Inside in action (via a Skype videocall), in use at an Israeli mall, which Shopcloud had already mapped. As Devora moved around inside the mall his location’s path was tracked within the Inside app. This will be a free download to get the tech into the hands of end-users.

In terms of the venue-mapping aspect, Shopcloud uses location maps provided by venues but does also have to visit each location to map the interior itself — so that it’s capturing all of the signals its system processes to determine location. After the initial mapping it won’t be doing any re-mapping of venues, but Devora says it will rather rely on users informing it when shop data (for instance) is no longer accurate — and update its maps based on crowdsourced feedback.

Devora says the Inside beta with launch with around 10 locations mapped, initially in Israel. But Shopcloud is also immediately targeting the technology at the US — and is aiming to have more than 200 locations mapped there by the time Inside exits beta.

Who does the startup view as its main competitors for Inside? “Google is doing a great job with mapping so I believe that they are the main competitors,” says Devora, going on to hint that perhaps the (really) big hope here is for Inside to locate another type of exit — i.e. the really lucrative kind which fellow Israeli mapping/location startup Waze managed to find.

“I respect Google, I respect their job. If we can co-operate with them in future, with mapping, with our technology it can be great as well,” he adds.