Wifarer’s Smartphone App Makes Sense of the Great Indoors

6/12/12Follow @xconomy

The inspiration behind Wifarer, an indoor positioning technology company, came to CEO and co-founder Philip Stanger during a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2005. As he followed one docent around the museum, he realized that a nearby tour had a better one. “I started following the other one, who was contextualizing the art in a totally different way,” Stanger says. “I thought, there has to be a better way. How does one work to deliver content in an indoor environment?”

Electronic audio guides offered limited experience, Stanger says, and lacked the interactivity that some other museums offer. And vendors tend to shy away from single-use hardware, since they already have enough electronic equipment to install, update and maintain. Existing technologies like Bluetooth and RFID seemed to have substantial limitations. “It struck me that there might be a way to determine location using RF signals,” he says.

A composer and coder, Stanger worked on the idea for years, but didn’t start the company with co-founder and director Steven Dengler until 2010. “We’d been having discussions for quite a while, but this particular time there were new ingredients in the mix,” he says.

Specifically, the ubiquity of Wi-Fi and the explosion of smartphones in people’s pockets. Wifarer’s engineers took two factors—the identifiers for Wi-Fi boxes and the strength of their signals—to pinpoint the location of smart phones. “Think of the boxes as loudspeakers that create patterns,” Stanger says. “We record those patterns, and use them to determine the RF fingerprint. We take that and put it through our special sauce to determine the exact location.” (Companies like Boston-based Skyhook Wireless use a similar approach to help smartphone makers determine outdoor locations.)

Making the technology work was a complicated problem, particularly because Wi-Fi signals are attenuated by water, and humans are full of H2O. “When have a congregation of people, you could have the Wi-Fi corrupted,” he says. “We had to find out solutions for that. All these various elements take time to resolve.”

Once Wifarer figured out how to make the technology work, the company developed an app that users could download to map out indoor venues from colleges to hospitals to hotels. The app can also deliver location-related content like videos and coupons.

Now, users can use the app to find the way from gate to gate at airports, watch videos with content tailored to specific exhibits, and take advantage of targeted deals.

Two years after Stanger and Dengler founded Wifarer, which is co-headquartered in San Jose, CA, and Victoria, BC, the company has hired about 20 employees, partnered with a couple dozen venues, and has deals with nearly 400 venues in the pipeline. It’s already beta testing its software in locations like the Royal British Columbia Museum.

To Stanger, there are two main draws for venues: way-finding navigation and contextualizing information. For locations like hospitals, airports, and convention centers, there’s a limit to … Next Page »

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