Apple has acquired WiFiSlam, an indoor GPS startup that can pinpoint a smartphone in real time within 2.5 meters of accuracy. The move bolsters the company’s shoddy map product and makes it more competitive to Google Maps, improves indoor GPS mapping capabilities and will likely eventually create new mapping functions, such as the ability to receive information about a product in the aisle of a consumer store. It’s a good sign that indoor mapping will soon be getting a lot of attention.
Apple paid about $20 million for the company.
The Wall St. Journal was the first to report the story. Apple confirmed the acquisition in a statement to Macrumors, stating: “The two-year-old startup has developed ways for mobile apps to detect a phone user’s location in a building using Wi-Fi signals. It has been offering the technology to application developers for indoor mapping and new types of retail and social networking apps.”
The startup has only a handful of employees, and one of its founders, Joseph Huang, is a former Google intern. The company had been producing its technology for indoor developers of indoor mapping, retail and social networking apps.
WiFiSlam establishes location using a variety of methods. As WiFi and cell tower trilateration cannot be done inside, the company measures WiFi signals to get a general location, and then uses WiFi fingerprinting to get an idea of the layout of the room. Slam is an acronym for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, as the technology uses sensors to record trajectories and blend with location data to get a more specific location indoors. It uses a combination pattern recognition and machine learning to more specifically detail a location indoors.
“When a gadget using WiFiSLAM wants to know its location, it analyzes the signal strengths and unique IDs of all the Wi-Fi networks around it,” MIT Tech Review explained in a review of the company’s technology when it first came out. “That is matched against a reference data set for the area either accessed over the Internet, or stored on the device. The estimate of location can be sharpened if a gadget moves slightly, because WiFiSLAM’s algorithms can gather multiple fingerprints. Compass data and accelerometer signals capturing a person’s footsteps are also used to refine the accuracy of subsequent location fixes as a person moves around.”
The sale is not expected to give Apple a significant lead over Google and Google Maps, though it does serve to play catch up as Apple tries to put its mapping fiasco behind it. It complements Apple’s previous acquisitions of C3 Technologies and Poly9. How much of a boost it gives Apple will depend on the accuracy of its indoor GPS pinpoints, though from the looks of it, WiFiSlam is better than most.