What museum apps tell us about 3D geolocation

Several months ago, I made a pilgrimage to the local art museum. I was mostly going to check out the flashy new buildings and collections, which gave me quite a bit to discover. So I did something I almost never do: I downloaded the museum’s app.

More in-depth than an audio guide and less cumbersome than a fold-out map, museum apps are basically like having a curator at your side. Yet unlike the actual curators you might meet on a guided tour, the app’s droning academic discourse can be cut off at any time. I’m a fan.

The geolocation challenge

What I quickly found at the museum, however, was that the app’s amazing content wasn’t aware of my precise location. When I was standing in front of Robert Arneson’s Portrait of George (Moscone), the app thought I was down the hall looking at, say, Henri Matisse’s Femme au Chapeau

Even more annoying, the app would randomly decide that I was in another room, jumping from place to place even as I stood still. Trying to simply find out more about the artwork in front of me proved to be a significant challenge. As a museum curator noted, “it throws you into the street…you’re walking along…and all of a sudden, you literally can’t get to the next bit of content. And that’s a problem.”

The museum made a laudable effort to create an immersive, interactive experience for its patrons and guests. Yet existing geolocation technology wasn’t able to deliver on that vision of a hyperlocal experience in a complex indoor space. To be fair, that’s because today’s options for geolocation technology don’t fit very well with this use case. Specifically:

Indoor location: Most location applications use GPS to find out where you are. Since those GPS signals are traveling all the way from outer space, they typically don’t perform well (or at all) in buildings – particularly the multi-story, concrete structures that house most art museums. Even in the best of circumstances, GPS signals will only pinpoint your location to within ten meters, which is a long way in the context of a densely packed art museum.

Vertical location: GPS signals also don’t provide reliable data on vertical location. In a multi-story art museum, current technology will have a hard time figuring out if you’re in the first floor sculpture gallery or the fourth floor contemporary art – it sees the entire museum as essentially one flat surface.

Wi-Fi location: Gaps in GPS functionality led the museum to try a custom wi-fi-based solution for geolocation, which created a whole new set of problems. Curators were installing hardware in crawlspaces. Bandwidth fluctuations led to erratic performance. Constant triangulation between hotspots confused the application. In the curator’s words: “When the app sucks, when it doesn’t work, when you have technical difficulties…we’ve made no difference at all.”

Indoor, vertical location is a pernicious problem for more than art lovers. When mobile devices can’t be located in a multi-story building, emergency responders take longer to find people in distress. Uber drivers can’t figure out if you’re on the airport arrivals level, or the departures level above it.

Building a new 3D ecosystem

Given the inherent shortcomings of existing technologies, NextNav developed a new way to solve the problem of indoor and vertical location. 

Using terrestrial network of sensors, NextNav calculates altitude combining its network data with the tiny barometers contained in most mobile devices. The up-front investment costs of this approach are relatively low – just a few strategically placed sensors can cover an entire city. It’s also far more precise – surveyed transmitter locations make the resulting data accurate enough to tell which floor you’re on.

As it rolls out vertical location services across the nation this year, NextNav is changing the way application developers (and ordinary users) think about geolocation. Soon, multistory buildings and dense urban areas will appear in apps as they actually are – complex, 3D locations instead of “flat earth” style maps.

That opens up new possibilities for application developers in many fields. Public safety applications will show the exact floor where emergency services personnel should respond, saving lives and increasing situational awareness. Ride sharing apps will point drivers to more exact locations in dense urban areas, increasing revenues and efficiency. Museum apps will be able to pinpoint the exact piece of art to describe, improving the user experience and encouraging repeat visits.

NextNav is hard at work building the ecosystem around 3D geolocation. We’re working with mobile carriers to make altitude data available to first responders and ordinary users nationwide. We’re working with application developers to incorporate that data into the services consumers use every day. We’re also building standards-based visualizations of 3D geolocation data to serve as the backbone of future use cases.

How will you use vertical location data? Check out NextNav’s Pinnacle solution and learn more about what’s possible.