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App uses Wi-Fi to plot the way for mall patrons

A search feature in Wifarer lets the user look for particular stores or a type of product. A search feature in Wifarer lets the user look for particular stores or a type of product.
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 13, 2012
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Finding your way around an indoor mall such as the Prudential Center is now a lot easier for shoppers with smartphones, thanks to a new software app that brings GPS-style turn-by-turn navigation inside buildings.

“It provides a personal guide - if you will, an umbilical cord to the venue,’’ said Philip Stanger, chief executive and founder of Wifarer Inc., the San Jose, Calif., company that created the app.

Wifarer technology has already been installed in a number of venues in the United States, including Chicago’s John Marshall Law School and San Francisco International Airport. The Shops at Prudential Center is the first shopping mall to install the service.

Millions use their smartphones with global positioning system chips to navigate streets and highways. But the same technology is useless in a building because the GPS radio signals can’t penetrate walls.

“When you talk about real turn-by-turn navigation in indoor environments, we haven’t seen too much of that yet,’’ said Brent Iadarola, research director for the mobile and wireless group Frost & Sullivan in San Antonio.

A number of companies offer indoor maps of large venues, such as airports and shopping malls. One of the best known, Point Inside Inc., has created smartphone maps of hundreds of locations in the United States, including Logan International Airport and the South Shore Plaza mall in Braintree. But the Point Inside app delivers static maps that do not track the user’s location in real time; by contrast, Wifarer seeks to follow the user’s every move.

Instead of GPS, Wifarer listens to a building’s Wi-Fi Internet routers, and uses these radio signals to generate an electronic map of the facility. By analyzing the strength and direction of these signals, the smartphone app can calculate the user’s position inside the building, and track that person’s movements. The concept was originated by Boston’s Skyhook Inc., and Wifarer adapted the technology for inside use.

The Wifarer app is a free download for users of Apple Inc.’s iPhone or phones running Google Inc.’s Android operating system. The app shows the user a map of the mall’s interior, and a spot marking his or her location. A search feature lets the user look for particular stores, or a type of product, like jewelry or books.

When a shopper picks a store in the mall, the map displays a dotted line marking the path to the destination. In addition, the screen displays icons that indicate special offers and discounts at particular stores. The user can “finger-shop’’ by tapping an icon to learn of an attractive deal.

Laura Sesody, marketing director at the Prudential mall, said Wifarer service should pay off for the mall’s customers and its retail tenants. “Wifarer has not only created a way to make our customers’ shopping experience more enjoyable and interactive, but it will give our retail tenants a new channel to reach consumers while they’re shopping,’’ she said.

Stanger said he came up with the idea to guide museums’ patrons through exhibits. But he soon realized that the market for indoor navigation is far bigger, saying that in addition to shopping malls, health care centers are inquiring about the technology.

Wifarer will not have the market to itself for long. A spokesman for Point Inside said Monday that his company is testing its own version of indoor Wi-Fi mapping. And last November, Google said it is testing an indoor navigation service in dozens of locations in the United States and Japan, including Home Depot stores and Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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