Indoor GPS alternative turns smartphones into pocket spies

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Cambridge Consultants show off indoor tracking system

Anyone that's had the misfortune to trundle around today's gargantuan shopping centres will no doubt recognise that getting lost indoors can be pretty easy – an endless stream of near-identical shop fronts and lack of reference points can leave the unwary shopper unable to find their way.

Deep in these concrete hellholes, your smartphone mapping tools are of little use: GPS cannot penetrate this far into a circle of the damned. But now, thanks to Cambridge Consultants, help is at hand.

The UK-based firm has created an algorithm that can analyse data from a smartphone's onboard instruments, such as the accelerometers and gyroscopes, to work out which direction a user has travelled once GPS signals are lost.

It's far from the first system to provide indoor locations, but if Cambridge Consultants' claims are to be believed, it promises to be the most accurate. It says the system can track location accurately to within one percent of the distance travelled.

Typically, other indoor systems use Wi-Fi data to track a user's location indoors. These rely on knowing the locations of various Wi-Fi networks, and then using this to estimate the user's position by seeing which Wi-Fi clouds they brush past.

Local directory service Yelp decided to do some field tests last year, trying to compare the accuracy of Wi-Fi positioning compared to GPS. It analysed information from users of its mobile app, which lets them check in to businesses premises they've visited. It then used those check-ins to compare Wi-Fi and GPS location data. It reckoned GPS was about twice as accurate as Wi-Fi positioning.

That typically wouldn't matter greatly if a user was outdoors, and the impact of being ever so slightly not where you thought you were isn't that troubling. But it could have a real benefit for firefighters looking for the nearest exit in a smoke-filled room.

There is a down side to this technology, however. We're increasingly warned that malware writers are following the herds and going mobile. If a user had their location-aware handset compromised, it potentially gives an attacker an unparalleled opportunity to spy on the user. 

08 Mar 2013

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