Why location finder apps have an urban problem

Ever since location was first enabled in smartphones, people have used mobile apps to find each other.  It started off with friend finder apps, which helped you discover if your pals were in the neighborhood and wanted to meet up.  Then came the family finder apps, which allowed parents to track the location of their children. 

Now location apps serve all kinds of use cases, from industrial workers to blue force tracking, dating to public safety.  If you can think of a reason to know the location of a person or group of people, there’s probably an app for that.

All of these products operate in similar ways.  They’re essentially GPS tracking apps which leverage the real time location services available in most smartphones.  Alerts tell you when people are nearby or stray from where they should be going based on geofencing or other location triggers.

The challenge of urban location

All of these geolocation finder apps rely heavily on GPS to locate people.  And for the most part, GPS delivers enough accuracy to get the job done outdoors.

Yet there is one place where GPS can’t consistently deliver the level of accuracy and detail that most location finder apps need:  urban areas.  In most cities, multi-story buildings dominate the landscape.  These buildings present a challenge for location apps that rely on GPS, which only provides reliable results in two dimensions. 

Representing a building as a flat rectangle may be fine in a one-story suburban Wal Mart.  In a busy downtown full of skyscrapers, subway stations, and parking garages, creating a meaningful sense of where someone is can a significant challenge.  Unfortunately, these complex urban streetscapes are often the exact places where people are most likely to get lost, and where finding people is most challenging.

Take family finder apps as an example.  If your child is lost in a three story shopping center, it’s not going to be very helpful to show all three levels as one flat image.  You want to know exactly which floor the child is on, so you don’t waste time searching in vain. 

Many public streets in urban areas have subway stations or parking garages underneath them.  Most family finder apps would portray those areas as the same place – hardly useful if you’re looking for someone in a crowded public space.

From the perspective of location finder app companies, urban areas represent a missed opportunity.  When an app can’t accurately portray the urban landscape, the result is a poor user experience that doesn’t live up to expectations.  When that happens, apps get deleted or trashed in user reviews.  Lower customer value and decreased revenue are likely to follow.

Location apps need vertical positioning

The vertical dimension is the missing element in most of today’s GPS-enabled location apps.  If they could account for how high up (or how far down) people appear, these apps would deliver the location accuracy most people need and expect, particularly in urban areas.

To address this significant gap, NextNav is rolling out its Pinnacle service for vertical location.  Leveraging the barometers built in to most of today’s smartphones and a nationwide network of altitude stations, NextNav delivers an accurate vertical position to within three meters 94% of the time.  That’s usually accurate enough to pinpoint what floor someone is on – a significant advancement in location technology.

NextNav’s Pinnacle service solves the thorny challenges associated with urban location.  Instead of representing a thirty-story skyscraper as a flat rectangle, apps which use NextNav’s Pinnacle service can provide far greater detail about where someone is and what’s around them. 

The value for location finder apps is clear.  Family finder apps can locate wayward family members in the places where they’re most likely to find themselves in unfamiliar territory.  Friend finder apps can accurately pinpoint a top floor bar for a social gathering and distinguish it from the first floor restaurant.  In these and many other scenarios, adding the third dimension is the difference between a strong user experience and a poor one.

In the relatively near future, vertical location will become an accepted baseline for all location-enabled applications.  We’ll soon look back at the age of 2D location and think “how primitive”.  Until that happens, vertical location can be a significant competitive differentiator for the first location finder apps which adopt it.  By providing granular details in those difficult urban areas, app companies can deliver significant value which sets them apart.

Learn more about NextNav’s Pinnacle service for vertical location.