NTT to roll out indoor navigation using smartphone sensors

Designed for Japan's complex rail hubs, the service would guide users based on their steps

This map from Zenrin DataCom shows what a new navigation service fro Japanese mobile carrier NTT DoCoMo will look like. The service uses motion and barometric sensors in smart phones to determine location in indoor environments where GPS signals may not reach.

This map from Zenrin DataCom shows what a new navigation service fro Japanese mobile carrier NTT DoCoMo will look like. The service uses motion and barometric sensors in smart phones to determine location in indoor environments where GPS signals may not reach.

Japanese mobile carrier NTT DoCoMo wants to go beyond GPS with a more granular smartphone navigation system for complex indoor spaces.

DoCoMo has partnered with mapping company Zenrin DataCom to develop the navigation system that makes use of sensors in smartphones. It's designed to help users find their way through Japan's dense indoor spaces such as subway complexes or underground malls where GPS signals may not reach.

Japan has some of the busiest and largest rail hubs in the world, with multiple floors, overlapping rail lines and subterranean shopping arcades. The new platform uses smartphone motion sensors to track direction when a user walks around. The data is plotted against preloaded maps from Zenrin, which supplies mapping apps for all DoCoMo mobile phones.

Atmospheric pressure sensors, or barometers, in some smartphones can also be used to detect when users of the navigation service climb or descend stairs or use elevators, according to DoCoMo. When that happens, the appropriate map for the floor or outdoor environment is automatically called up.

"There's strong demand for a low-cost indoor navigation service," Takuya Ori, a spokesman for NTT DoCoMo, said via email, adding there are no comparable navigation apps that use sensors in smartphones.

DoCoMo plans to roll out the feature from April in Japan as an add-on to its Android map application. It will start with 320 indoor locations around the country, and the monthly user fee will likely be around ¥300 (US$2.50).

The service will likely start with Android smartphones that have the appropriate sensors. DoCoMo also carries the iPhone 6, which includes a barometer that can determine relative elevation.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

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