08/28/2013 11:32 EDT | Updated 10/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Mobile developers take mapping indoors

MONTREAL - Google has mastered mapping of city streets and highways. Now developers are looking inside.

University of Windsor student Brendan Rhyno and three of his colleagues are among those who are considering the consumer demand to get directions indoors.

They have developed a mapping app that uses a building's WiFi network and floor plan to help people find their way.

"It draws you the shortest path from where you are to where you want to go," said Rhyno, a 22-year-old electrical and computer engineering student starting a master's degree.

Rhyno and his fellow students created their app — which has not yet been released publicly — as a class project to help students get around the university's new engineering building. They plan to officially launch the free Android app and eventually put it on the iPhone and BlackBerry platforms.

Another potential use for the students' app is shopping malls.

"Any time you go to a new mall, you have to find that map when you walk in and try to figure out where the stores you are looking for are. It's so much easier to pull out a smartphone, type in HMV store and get a path drawn for you."

Tech trends firm ABI Research is predicting that indoor location applications will break one billion downloads by 2016 as smartphone use proliferates. Google, of course, is also working on indoor maps for airports, malls and transit stations. The tech giant has already mapped the massive West Edmonton Mall. Other malls like Toronto's Eaton Centre have designed their own apps for shoppers to use.

Info-Tech Research Group analyst Mark Tauschek said the technology for this kind of app and the positioning is improving. But the mapping can't be too intricate for consumers.

"You have to simplify it," said Tauschek, principal consulting analyst at the tech firm in London, Ont.

"You have to dumb it down, you don't need to show every wall and every nook and cranny and hallway. You just need the basic routes."

Tauschek noted that the Bellagio in Las Vegas has an app to help its guests get around the hotel.

"So you download the app and it will give you pop ups to say here's an interesting thing you're standing right beside, or it will give you turn-by-turn directions within the casino."

Mapping apps can also have targeted advertising to offer discounts and could help hotels and shopping malls monetize the expense of their WiFi systems, he said.

Rhyno said he and his colleagues tried to make the app as simple as possible in its design.

"You would just have to upload an image of a floor plan and then you have to map it. You can make it as dense as you want or you can make it as sparse as you want."

He considers the app a consumer product that could be used pretty much anywhere.

"We all have places to go and it would be helpful to make sure we don't get lost."