Tired of how useless GPS tracking is inside a building? A new smartphone chip aims to pinpoint your location down to a few centimeters, even indoors. On top of that, it will track your vertical position too, whether you’re on the second floor of a mall or the 20th floor of an office building. According to the press release, the chip accomplishes this feat by integrating information from a bunch of sensors and wireless protocols in addition to using 50% less power, delivering 10 times the performance, and taking up nearly half the size of comparable chips.
Not only does this mean that GPS in smartphones could finally break free from Flatland, but it just might be the beginning of location-aware everything.
Disregarding Intel’s proclivity to dub their chips with ethereal names, the latest chip offering from Broadcom Corp. is simply called the BCM4752. Broadcom reports that the chip communicates with four different satellite constellations, which means access to the 59 satellites hovering over our heads, in addition to cellphone towers. It establishes indoor positioning by pulling from a bunch of different wireless sources, like Wi-Fi, near field communication (NFC), and inertial sensors plus its built to capitalize on emergent technologies, like Bluetooth beacons and 5G Wi-Fi access points (using the new 802.11ac standard even though everyone is still catching up with 802.11n). The more precise vertical and horizontal positioning is accomplished by communicating with a host of various sensors, like accelerometers, step counters, gyroscopes, altimeters, and magnetometers.
The BCM4752 is available now, so it’s possible that smartphones, tablets, and other devices with the chip may be available within a year. Broadcom is the largest producer of GPS chips for smartphones, so it makes sense that smartphone manufacturers would just upgrade to this chip, but the bigger issue is utilizing it and the most obvious application would be indoor maps. Anticipating the inevitable use of GPS indoors, Google made Street View available for interiors last year as a clever way for businesses to market themselves, but clearly all this canvasing of buildings will have huge utility for Google Maps. So if you are going to a new doctor, Google Maps could give you directions not just to the building, but show you how to access the elevator and get to her office on the third floor. That’s right – we could finally have GPS that uses the third dimension.
Precise location-aware devices have the potential to revolutionize the smartphone culture. Imagine never having to wander around for a directory in a mall again or being late for an interview because you got lost in the building. It would also make finding a friend at a concert or at a football game even easier. More precise tracking indoors means a team of firefighters could track each other inside a building and locate people trapped inside. Game developers could make even better location-based gaming such as Shadow Cities or you could create your own geocaching treasure hunts. And, of course, there’s the continued interest in geotracking family members. Altogether, knowing the precise location of people down to the centimeter will have huge benefits across society, unless of course you’re a fugitive thinking about updating Facebook while on the run.
Here’s Google’s video about their indoor mapping efforts:
More sophisticated applications for position-sensitive smartphones may go beyond better maps. As people increasingly use their smartphones as a wallet, users could define geographical locales, known as geofencing, outside of which payments are denied or the smartphone stops working. This is becoming more important as a recent study on lost smartphones by Symantec showed that 89 percent of the people who found them were accessed for personal information and apps, including online banking, and only 50 percent were returned. So clearly smartphones need to be locatable wherever they are. Location awareness could get even more sophisticated if say RFIDs were used in everything. You could have an app that not only shows your grocery list, but creates a route through the store so you could pick up everything in one pass. You could track down a book or your lost keys with your smartphone using the same approach. These are only scratching the surface of imagining what it will be like to communicate digitally with people and objects through their physical location.
The bottom line is high precision, location-aware smartphones are coming (finally) that provide physical location data to anything asking for it, if it’s an inch away or 12,000 miles overhead. Whether the BCM4752 can deliver everything that it promises won’t be known until manufacturers and developers work with it, but by building an integrated, all-in-one platform, this chip is a step in that direction.