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Microsoft launches Path Guide for easy, low-cost indoor navigation

Microsoft Path GuideHow do navigate inside a building where GPS can’t reach? The answer is indoor positioning. This is an area that has proved to be trickier than earlier thought, with companies across the spectrum pouring in money to come up with innovative solutions and better indoor maps.

Now, Microsoft has launched Path Guide to provide low-cost, plug-and-play indoor navigation services. Users can easily find the correct path to their destinations by simply following traces created by a “leader,” or user who has been to the location before. The application was developed by Microsoft Research Asia’s Cloud & Mobile Research group.

The Path Guide Android-based mobile app is user-friendly and can be installed directly onto a user’s smartphone, without the need for indoor maps or for building to have any special pre-installed hardware (including Wi-Fi routers). A user just needs to download the app on his/her smartphone and start “Trace Recording” while walking to a pre-set destination. Path Guide allows you to take notes, photos and even record voices during the walk to make it easier for your friends to find the place.

While most indoor navigation devices rely on a variety of sensors like Bluetooth beacons, Wi-Fi positioning, lasers, scanners etc in addition to GPS, Path Guide uses pre-existing sensors in the phone, such as accelerometers (to count steps), magnetometers (to sense the general area where one is starting), gyroscopes (a sensor that can provide orientation information as well, but with greater precision), electronic compasses, barometers, etc.

How Path Guide works?

Path Guide works on a “peer-to-peer leader/follower” model. This means once a user goes to an indoor location using the app to record sensor data along a path, any other user can follow that path and get there. Different paths can be combined to make the system even more useful as more and more users collect data and feed into the system.

Microsoft Path GuideThis model can be used by colleagues who have come to attend a meeting in a hotel, or a group of friends planning to catch up in a huge mall. After arriving at the designated place, the “leader” clicks the “finish recording” button to upload the path data trace to Path Guide’s backend in the Cloud. Anyone in his group (the “followers”) who enter later the building later can then use Path Guide to follow the shared trace step-by-step to easily locate the correct room.

Microsoft claims that in huge crowded places like shopping malls any person or even shop owners can act as “guide leader” and share path traces from multiple locations (e.g., different entrances) to get to a certain destination, such as a relatively hidden restaurant or a clothing store.

Tracing unfamiliar places

The app could be a great way to find one’s way around unfamiliar places. For instance, while parking in a strange place, a user can record a trace from his car to his destination and later follow it in reverse to back to his car. Users can also add text, audio, and photos along a path, thus providing more information and interactivity.

All the recorded traces get uploaded onto the Cloud, which can be viewed from a Web browser and shared with others using a unique trace ID. This way, shop owners can post way-finding instructions on their own websites, and meeting coordinators can attach a route to an email meeting request.

The Microsoft team felt that this approach has two main benefits: Firstly, the system is completely plug-and-play, so any two users in any building can use indoor navigation from scratch. Secondly, by combining data from multiple users, the system can amplify the benefits of every single collected path, providing more navigation opportunities to more people with improved user experience.