Lost in the Mall? Israeli Startups Have an App for You

Tech obstacles have frustrated the rise of indoor navigation apps, but a handful of companies have some novel solutions

Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen
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The Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv.
The Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen

Long-time Tel Aviv residents take pride in their ability to navigate the city’s Dizengoff Center. It’s a skill that can’t be taken for granted – the shopping mall is one of Israel’s most confusing buildings and for those unfamiliar with its spiral architecture and non-standard division of its floors, it can be a traumatic experience finding your way around.

So it should come as no surprise that five years ago Dizengoff Center launched its own app, called EasyDizi, as a guide for the perplexed. Behind the app is an Israeli startup called Shimeba, which placed 150 Bluetooth transmitters to connect with smartphones that have the app installed and show the user where he or she is inside the mall.

But the Dizengoff solution is a rarity. Six years ago, it seems as if the market for navigation apps inside buildings would be the next big thing for the world’s high-tech industry, When we’re outside, we can find our way around through GPS applications, so it made sense that the next advance would be apps for inside a shopping mall or airport terminal.

In practice, it didn’t happen. Even though the world’s technology giants as well as countless startups invested a lot of resources in solving the problem, most people still use plain old-fashioned signs or ask direction from passersby – and often end up getting lost. The technology simply didn’t gain momentum because of technology obstacles and the absence of an attractive business model.

Now, a new generation of Israeli startups is determined to tackle the problem – but this time the users aren’t people but robots and drones.

Indoor navigation and indoor positioning systems have been a goal for more than a decade, and it’s easy to understand why. Much of modern life occurs in giant structures often unfamiliar to the people in them – not just airports, but hospitals, parking garages, Walmart Supercenters and office complexes.

Right to the shelf

An app should be able to guide someone from the moment he enters the hospital’s parking garage up until he or she arrives at the door of the doctor’s office. In a department store or supermarket, they could guide a shopper to the shelf where the product he or she wants is waiting, without the help of store clerks.

Outdoor navigation apps make use of GPS, a satellite link that is available to everyone. But inside a building there’s no satellite reception; another technology has to take its place.

Large numbers of startups in Israel and abroad have developed solutions, some of which are available in Israel. In addition to Dizengoff’s EasyDizi, Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital launched an app developed by Shimeba in 2017 to help people find various departments. Waze, the Israeli navigation app now owned by Google, developed a system that doesn’t require GPS. It’s used in places like Haifa’s Carmel Tunnel and the underground parking garage of Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market employing Bluetooth technology. The Google Maps app offers maps of most of Israel’s big malls, although it doesn’t have a way to navigate the user through them.

In many places around the world companies like Here and Indoor Atlas offer location and navigation services for inside big buildings. Apple has also begun adding building floor plans in its mapping app.

But on the whole, the field hasn’t lived up its early promise. In 2014, for instance, Shopcloud unveiled an impressive pilot app for navigating Ramat Gan’s Ayalon Mall. A year later, the company shut down.

Shai Ronen, CEO of Navin, one of the older players in the segment, admits that the technology hasn’t developed as quickly as he had expected, “When we presented our idea to investors they told us it was ahead of its time, and that got me angry,” he said.

As it turned out they were right. The company operated on a low flame for many years. “There were many times when we were near death, but we never thought of giving up. We weren’t alone: Airports around the world were investing millions of euros in solutions, but the entire industry succumbed to disappointment because no one could really solve the problem,” he said.

Shimeba continues to work on indoor navigation projects but its founders have other startups, too, to which they devote their time. “We’ve realized we aren’t going to conquer the world with it,” admitted Michael Milman, its CEO.

The first and foremost obstacle to indoor navigation is technology. Unlike GPS, there is no single, universal technology for inside buildings. Unlike cities and roads, no one has systematically mapped the insides of big buildings to the detail of every room, corridor and store.

That’s no small obstacle because it means that every company that wants to offer an indoor navigation app has to develop the technology infrastructure for each location, map it exactly and constantly update it. It’s a complicated, costly, frustrating process.

To this day no one has been able to agree on what that universal technology should be. The indoor navigation app world is divided into two camps.

One favors a hardware solution that places antennas throughout the building, using Bluetooth or some other technology. The smartphone would be able to locate itself by communicating with the network of antennas. As solutions go, it has the advantage of being tried and tested, and shown reliable. But it is expensive not only to install but to maintain.

The second camp proposed using Wifi, cellphone networks or even magnetic field. They are cheaper and easier to install and operate, but they have shown themselves to be less precise in comparison with GPS.

There have been experiments with systems that draw on both technologies. The services offered by Google and Apple, for example, use Wifi points, but the companies encourage building owners to supplement it with Bluetooth to improve its reliability.

Chaos and confusion

Meanwhile, it’s all chaos and confusion. While there are lots of different apps, services and infrastructure technologies, each mall and airport has its own system and users are confused. “It’s like you need to install one navigation app for Ra’anana, another for Haifa and another for Moscow or Manhattan,” said Ronen.

In addition, the business case for building owners or tech companies to invest in systems is unproven. “What’s the value added that you get for the money? Does it come from improving services to visitors? Apart from especially complicated places like Dizengoff Center, it’s a secondary need,” said Milman.

Still, there is room enough for small startups to try their luck.

One that is doing just that is Oriient, which was formed three years ago and this year raised $4 million in capital. The Tel Aviv-based company has develop technology using the earth’s magnetic field. Or Shin Shinhertz, its head of business strategy and operations, said the technology is both precise and requires no physical infrastructure.

Oriient’s technology makes use of the unique distortion of earth’s magnetic field created by a building and leverages the sensors that exist inside most smartphones to identify and record these magnetic landscapes. That enables it to create a map of a location as the smartphone moves around and locates other smartphones. It’s precise to a meter, which would make it accurate enough to be used in supermarkets.

“The chains realize that when a customer can’t find a product, he gets frustrated and leaves,” said Shinhertz. “They’re looking for solutions that can tell shoppers exactly which shelf has what they’re looking for.”

In contrast, IntraPosition, which was formed in 2015, believes in a solution based on physical infrastructure but not Bluetooth or Wifi. Instead, it makes use of the Ultra Wideband (UWB) protocol, which is in use now in warehouses to locate goods. Tags attached to goods and people broadcast a signal picked up by anchors that then positions them within the building.

Yaron Shavit, the company’s founder and CEO, said the system has been installed in Portuguese supermarkets, with the tags attached to shopping carts. The system locates the shopping cart within 30 centimeters, which is exact enough for a shopper to locate exactly the product he or she is looking for.

Shavit said the system could become widely used when smartphone makers put UWB chips in their devices, which would make the tags superfluous. He predicts that will start happening within the next three years. Apple, he noted, has already done so with the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, which were introduced this year (for now, to help owners find their phones when they’re lost).

“This could turn it into the GPS infrastructure of the indoor world,” said Shavit.

The main danger facing startups is competition from the world’s tech giants. Google, for instance, with its popular Google Maps service, in the natural candidate to dominate the market. Many in the industry believe that its next big step will be to use its Virtual Positioning System (VPS) to navigate inside buildings.

Google’s solution

Last year, Google demonstrated how this technology, together with GPS, can help navigate in open areas: Smartphone cameras identify buildings, streets and other landmarks and their distance from the user, enabling him or her to pinpoint exactly the location.

This technology can display navigation directions in real time in a layered reality in the Google Maps app (instructions are displayed as floating arrows on a virtual reality scene of your location on the smartphone’s screen). Many believe that Google will eventually use VPS to guide users inside buildings.

Indoor navigation tech is helpful for people but it’s not necessary. They can still rely on signs, asking directions or figure things out for themselves. However, robots and drones don’t have any of those options. Companies that want to put robots into homes, factories and warehouses need to equip them with the ability to find their way around, just like self-driving cars.

Indoor Robotics entrepreneurs Doron Ben-David and Amit Moran.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

That’s what the startup Indoor Robotics, which was formed last year, is aiming to do. It’s sort of come out of stealth mode after raising its first round of capital from, among others, the Pitango and Target Global venture capital funds. The company has developed an indoor drone for monitoring and providing security in factories, warehouses and malls. It plans to expand it offerings with drones for homes. Unlike other drones, the Indoor Robotics device doesn’t take off and land from the floor. Rather it’s anchored to a ceiling by magnets and is released to investigate events like a suspected fire or a break-in.

“The cameras, laser sensors and ultrasonic sensors the drone on its own creates a map of the space it’s in,” explained CEO Doron Ben-David. The information is processed in the cloud with servers provided by Amazon’s AWS service.

Once the map is completed, the drone navigates visually, with cameras facing down that chart its course from its base station. Sensors ensure that it doesn’t collide with walls or other obstacles. “The drone can pass through an open door of 80 centimeters,” said Ben-David. “So it is a lot more precise than GPS.”

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