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What Is Indoor GPS and How Does It Work?

Find out how to achieve GPS-like navigation for your retail facilities

Finding your way around the world has never been easier, whether you’re plotting out an ocean voyage or just trying to find your way to a new restaurant on the other side of town. Global positioning is so fast and ubiquitous that it’s like magic, but the spell is too often broken the moment we step inside the doors of our favorite shopping establishments. Once indoors, visitors have to resort to not-so-21st-century solutions such as flagging down employees for directions or hoping a map kiosk is up to date. For store planners and retail location managers, it would be so much simpler if indoor GPS worked just as well as its outdoor cousin.

The good news is that you can achieve indoor GPS-quality navigation for your retail location — though you probably can’t rely on the GPS system you’re already familiar with to do it. Here’s why, and what you can use instead.

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What Is Indoor GPS?

What Are Some Alternatives to Indoor GPS?

What Is Indoor GPS?

Indoor GPS is the usage of global positioning systems to track users' locations inside buildings, typically within the context of wayfinding for large facilities such as retail complexes or healthcare centers. GPS stands for "global positioning system," and it's the technology that allows any GPS receiver from a smartphone to a military-grade navigation system to near-instantly determine where a user is on the surface of the earth, often within an area of just a few square yards or smaller.

GPS receivers function by listening for microwave signals from more than 30 GPS navigation satellites that orbit the earth about 20,200 kilometers above sea level. Their orbits are carefully calculated so that receivers virtually anywhere on earth will be able to pick up signals from the minimum four satellites required to determine a receiver’s position, as long as they have a sufficiently unobstructed path to the sky.

But there’s the rub for indoor GPS: Since the roofs and walls of large structures dissipate the microwave signals emitted by GPS navigation satellites, GPS receiver performance typically degrades or ceases to work entirely within the types of facilities where indoor navigation aids are most useful. In short, indoor GPS doesn’t tend to work, and it likely never will without substantial changes to the way the system works.

However, since the term “GPS” has in many ways become synonymous with tools to aid navigation and wayfinding regardless of their technical underpinnings, “indoor GPS” can also more broadly refer to various indoor navigation systems. Thankfully, these dedicated systems work quite well, so that shoppers deep within a department store or even an enclosed shopping mall can find their way with ease and more deeply engage with the retail offerings around them.

Helping customers better navigate and enjoy existing retail spaces with the devices they already have in their pocket is just one of many benefits of building out your location’s digital infrastructure. It can also unlock new advertising opportunities, empower next-generation consumer data analysis, and beyond. Download our Guide to the New Digital Infrastructure for Malls & Retail Properties to learn more.

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What Are Some Alternatives to Indoor GPS?

If you wish to give customers a better way to get around indoor retail facilities without needing to rely on inconsistent-at-best indoor GPS performance, you have several options to consider:

  • Bluetooth positioning: Installing dedicated Bluetooth beacons throughout your facility will allow users to determine their position within 3 to 4 meters. These beacons are relatively inexpensive and often include batteries that can last for up to a decade, meaning their installation requires no substantial remodeling or electrical work. But their limited range of up to 30 meters means larger facilities will need a fairly sizable fleet to provide indoor GPS-like capabilities.
  • WiFi positioning: If your facilities offer numerous wireless access points for visitors, you may be able to use them to pull double duty as WiFi positioning points. A WiFi positioning system works by measuring the response time between devices on a network to establish a visitor’s position within a building. This comes with the benefit of using existing hardware and a range of up to 150 meters per access point, though its estimated positioning accuracy is slightly lower at 5 to 15 meters.
  • Digital twins: A step beyond simply seeding your retail location with trackable wireless signals is building out a functional digital twin. This virtual replica of your facility uses a combination of sensors and other systems to monitor its real-world counterpart and enable indoor mapping. As a bonus, digital twins offer many other benefits, including virtual troubleshooting, predictive maintenance, and overall reduced costs.

Building out an indoor navigation solution for your retail location is a worthwhile goal on its own. But it can also be the starting point for a much more fundamental and functional update of your location’s digital infrastructure, analytics capabilities, and value proposition for visitors — all without anywhere near the cost required for a traditional physical overhaul.

Resonai specializes in bridging the gap between the physical and the digital, empowering retail brands to streamline their operations while simultaneously elevating their shopping experience. Building real-time intelligent experiences, smart merchandising, and real-time data analysis into your current and future locations could be exactly the move your stores need to strengthen their bottom line for years to come.

Are you ready to learn more? Get in touch with Resonai today and set up a free demonstration.

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