Augmented Reality, Indoor Geolocation and the Future of Navigation Experiences

For large commercial precincts, a customer’s experience is at the heart of daily operations and also strategic technology decisions. Personalizing and improving the customer’s experience will result in more repeat business, higher satisfaction ratings and ultimately increased revenues. It’s no wonder that the hunt for the best possible technologies is frantic. 

In large precincts, one of the most difficult tasks is helping connect the customer to the numerous products and services available  – Visitors get lost looking for amenities and overwhelmed with the crowds. It’s frustrating and leads to an early exit. Technology can help with that connection and reduce the friction points between the customer and the environment. The challenge however is to discern between real, employable technologies that provide an immediate benefit for the precinct versus technology that has a buzz but ultimately leads to poor results.

The immediate future

The current generation of navigation technologies in the digital sphere are focused on improving communications and providing information within large precincts. Digital touchpoints such as wayfinding kiosks and digital signage have made a huge difference in the customer experience for some time now and will continue to be at the forefront of the guest experience at the base level. Beyond that though there is a push towards newer technologies that do more than provide one-way information.

Augmented Reality has long been mooted as a potential step-change for navigation. It’s proposed that the technology might provide a more intuitive experience and can potentially deliver navigational clarity that’s more forgiving than current technology.

The challenge has been converting the theory into action. AR has faced a couple of significant hurdles; firstly, it requires a level of data transmission that generally isn’t available and second, it requires the user to understand how to employ it for benefit, in a way that users are not comfortable with right now.

AR technology challenges

Like all navigational technologies, AR requires information input if it is to provide significant benefits to users. It needs to know where the user is, where they’re going, which way they’re facing and the best route to the destination. Like other geolocation-based technologies, it faces technological hurdles to realize the promise.

At scale and with a clear signal, GPS-based, outdoor positioning is accurate to the degree required to help us in many common situations. It helps us know approximately where we are, down to a few meters. This is perfectly fine for most outdoor journeys, the kind we take with Google Maps. As the environment gets more complex, constrained and the level of detail required increases, problems arise. If positioning isn’t accurate and constant, the user is provided poor-quality information, which leads to confusion and frustration.

Indoor positioning technology simply isn’t accurate to the level required for most applications. It can be adequate for blue-dot location (where am I standing right now) and so can possibly help with indoor navigation in a basic format. It doesn’t however provide the level of detail to support AR unless the density of supporting hardware technology (in the form of location beacons) is very high. Indoor positioning and consequently AR can work to a degree in certain indoor environments with enough hardware investment, however the use cases where the ends justify the means are very limited. Currently it seems that only healthcare has found indoor positioning to be a worthy investment, while Augmented Reality still seems to be a concept in trial rather than a practical application. 

AR is demanding on data-throughput, which puts a real strain on business bandwidth generally and indoor positioning in particular. It is constantly telling the user a specific piece of information (turn here, now) and so any delay means the system fails completely, where an overhead map at least allows the user to anticipate and make the decisions to ‘override the system’.

User Experience Challenges

Google is at the forefront of AR technology and has still yet to release even outdoor AR in scale, though they’re definitely making inroads. The main challenge has been to find a use-case that shows AR to be more effective than current technologies. While there are certainly situations where AR is effective, it comes with safety concerns and user-experience failures that have prevented AR from being worthy of implementation.

The user interface for AR is very challenging. Users should keep their head up and be aware of their environment. AR demands a level attention that’s counterproductive to the goal of safely navigating from point A to point B.

“Google has reportedly been experimenting with the user interface, finding that users will follow a line on the ground too closely, and that an animated guide will keep them glued to the screen. Pierce notes that the interface he previewed could change, and that Google isn’t saying when the feature will roll out to users, just that it’ll be available to “a few Local Guides” soon, and “will come to everyone only when Google is satisfied that it’s ready.”

In short, AR simply isn’t yet better than the path-based methodology most providers (including Google and Apple) already provide.

The future

There’s no doubt that AR, in one form or another, has potential. At PAM, we’re watching and experimenting. AR is one idea, haptic technology another worth considering. Haptic navigation provides a similar level of direction to the user but allows the user to keep their head up and aware of their surroundings.

As the technology improves, the cost will also come down. The cost for indoor positioning (and AR in particular, give its particular need for accuracy) simply hasn’t yet reached a point that justifies the investment. There are technologies that are coming into play, particularly UWB (Ultra Wide Band) technology, newly found in iPhone and Samsung phones. These technologies are more accurate and remove entirely the need for a beacon system to execute wayfinding indoors. This technology, once deployed, will be the step-change required to make indoor navigation and AR in particular, a viable technology to improve the customer experience.




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