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 how much signage, maps and pamphlets can be provided, and how many languages can fit on a single sign. With Wifarer, users have maps on their phones that plot location in real time, as well as provide routes to get people where they need to go.

For venues like shopping centers and museums, the appeal is providing visitors with contextualized information and real-time dynamic offers. “The marketing opportunities in the system are quite profound,” Stanger says. “We can actually trigger events once you’re in store. It does offer a lot of flexibility.”

So far, Wifarer has focused on partnering with venues, and relied on in-space marketing like posters, social media, and floor-clings to market to potential users. And the company has made sure to make it easy for consumers, so that they only have to download the Wifarer app once, no matter which partner venue they happen to be in. So if a user downloads the app at a given airport, the same app will work at a partner museum in a foreign country—they simply have to turn it on so that it automatically downloads content for the new location. “It’s in response to data that shows people just don’t download venue-specific apps,” Stanger says.

The software is free for users, and the company charges venue for its system. According to Stanger, venues like airports and convention centers are looking for ways to deal with way finding and engagement issues, and have the budgets to pay for the product. Down the road, the company will likely explore models that are more retail-oriented, and possibly include more targeted advertising.

There are a lot of companies in the space, and Stanger expects that the overall industry will be a large one. Google, for example, has been working on way-finding software, but Stanger believes their model, which often relies on third-party advertising, will be a turn-off to retailers and other venues that would not want to relinquish control over advertising. “We’ve found that venues are very cognizant of possible business models,” he says. “We would give them a similar service, but they could control it.”

Stanger expects that the company will also be in the market for Series A funding in the not-too-distant future, though for now Dengler is bankrolling the company.

Currently, the co-founders are focused on rolling out the technology to those 400 venues waiting in the pipeline. “We bridging that nexus between the physical and digital world,” he says. “In these terms, it’s kind of an augmented reality.”

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