Citywide Indoor Navigation Is Closer Than You Think

A new app launching in Seoul this fall will allow users to navigate from a street corner down into the subway and even to a particular shop or café in an underground mall.

Thanks to its ubiquitous smartphones and speedy broadband, Seoul is already recognized as one of the world's most wired cities. This fall, the South Korean capital will take this reputation to a new level by introducing a free mobile application that can navigate the city both above and below street level. The app, called Fing, could set a new standard for city navigation guides around the world.

Fing draws on a mix of wireless technologies to offer an unprecedented level of detail about Seoul. Street-level navigation taps the phone's GPS like a typical mapping app. But in places where GPS doesn't work, such as underground and deep inside shopping malls, Fing switches to Wi-Fi-based indoor positioning to track users' locations and provide directions.

When Fing is released in November, users will be able to navigate from a street corner down into the subway and then to a particular shop or café in an underground mall, all within the app. Normally, several apps would be needed to map this kind of hybrid route. In many countries, the route wouldn't be fully mappable because non-GPS indoor location technology is still nascent.

Fing's indoor map of Seoul's Gangnam Station shopping mall, courtesy KTNET

Since GPS needs a "line of sight" to outdoor satellites to operate, indoor location relies instead on Wi-Fi, cellular connectivity, Bluetooth, RFID or other technologies that work inside. Fing derives its indoor positioning data from patented algorithms developed at Korea's top science and technology university, KAIST. The method, which collects Wi-Fi signals to create a radio map, requires special software and databases but is considered relatively inexpensive because it leverages a facility's existing Wi-Fi infrastructure. It is also more accurate than other indoor positioning technologies, with an error margin of five meters.

By making malls and underground markets easily navigable, Fing's creators hope to encourage shopping and socializing. The app is backed by the Korea Trade Network (KTNET), a subsidiary of Korea's international trade association.

Another major use of the app could end up being emergency aid. A one-click feature in Fing will send a text message to the nearest police or fire department. The message will include a request for help and the coordinates of the user's location for expedited rescue.

Seoul's abundant Wi-Fi, subterranean facilities and tech-savvy populace make it fertile ground for an app like Fing. A number of cities and countries have already expressed interest in building similar services. KTNET says it has discussed collaborations with Paris' Louvre Museum, Westfield Shopping Malls and the Smithsonian Institution in the U.S., Singapore's Marina Bay Sands casino and hotel and Indonesia's Plaza Indonesia and Gandaria City malls, as well as companies in Dubai and Macau.

When Fing is officially released in November, it will focus on Gangnam Station, Seoul's busiest subway hub. The station, which is located in the wealthy, southern Seoul neighborhood that inspired the viral "Gangnam Style" song/video, is home to an extensive underground shopping mall that boasts 12 street-level entrances/exits.

Fing easily toggles between indoor and outdoor navigation. Courtesy KTNET

KAIST computer science professor Dongsoo Han, who developed Fing's Wi-Fi location technology, eventually wants to tie indoor navigation to Seoul's bus and train systems as well as its subways. His concept for a "door-to-door" navigation app would enable people to share their real-time locations while in transit and would lead them step-by-step to their destinations, through bus, train and subway transfers. Han has recruited Korea's transportation agencies to the project, which he expects to kick off in early 2013.

Han, who earned his Ph.D. at Kyoto University, is hopeful Japan will follow suit with its own door-to-door navigation app. "Japan and Korea are the best places for this because they have very crowded cities with a high use of public transportation and the necessary infrastructure," he says. To encourage international adoption, Han has been researching more efficient ways to build Wi-Fi radio maps. His ultimate goal is to radio-map the world so people can use one app for global navigation, indoors and out.  

About the Author

  • Elizabeth Woyke writes about technology and business. Her work has appeared in BusinessWeek, Fast Company, Forbes, and Time Asia.