As a major sector of the digital industry, mobility is a coveted market for many start-ups. LittleThumb is one start-up working in this area. Co-founded by researchers at Télécom SudParis, the company seeks to provide navigational aid inside buildings. To do so, it has based its strategy on near-field communication (NFC). Since it is a low-cost solution, it can be deployed on a large scale.

 

Arrive at a large building ten minutes early for an appointment. Ask for directions at reception. Get lost. Find a floor: it’s the wrong one. Get lost again. Ask someone passing by for help. Then realize you aren’t in the right wing of the building. After all that, you arrive ten minutes late. And yet the journey had started out well: the GPS did its job to take you from your home to the building where you had the appointment. But once inside the building, it is a different story.

Such scenarios are all too common in real life. In 2014, the British national health service (NHS) estimated the number of missed outpatient appointments at hospitals in the United Kingdom to be 6.9 million. The problem is largely attributed to the lack of navigational resources within buildings, according to doctors interviewed by researchers from the University of Nottingham.

Of course, hospitals are not the only ones to experience this sort of situation. They are also common in other buildings, such as university campuses with their long hallways that all look alike, certain maze-like government buildings, and large industrial complexes, to name just a few. All of these examples bring to mind bleak hours spent in endless hallways. It is precisely to avoid such unpleasant experiences that the start-up LittleThumb was created. Founded by researchers from Télécom SudParis and a former employee of NavTeq, and incubated since 2014 at IMT Starter, it offers an indoor geolocation and mapping solution.

To do so, the start-up relies on an eponymous mobile application, and a network of near-field communication (NFC) chips. These sensors, which LittleThumb plans to install in buildings that seek to set up an indoor wayfinding system, contain the site map and their position on the map in just a few kilobytes. When a smartphone comes within a few centimeters of the chip, the application receives this information and can therefore determine the user’s position in the building. It is then possible to configure a destination within the building to find out the best way to get there. Coupled with the smartphone’s gyroscope, the service can even point you in the right direction to start out.

Sometimes the best solution is the simplest

Nel Samama, co-founder of the start-up and researcher at Télécom SudParis, readily admits that “the originality of the idea stems from its simplicity, since there’s nothing revolutionary about the technology it uses.” But it’s precisely the frugality of the solution that gives it its strength. Economically, NFC chips only cost a few eurocents and do not require any power source over the course of their 25-year lifespan. Meanwhile, “In order to set up a WiFi positioning system, terminals that are worth €100 apiece would have to be installed, with wiring and configuration costs that could amount to thousands of euros,” says Nel Samama.

Another advantage: personal data protection. First of all, the connection between the smartphone and NFC chip — often placed on a wall — only takes place when the distance between the two is less than 4 or 5 centimeters. This means the user has to intentionally bring his phone close to the chip to be located. Moreover, the system put in place does not allow for real-time tracking, since the position is only indicated when it is near a terminal.  Therefore, no mobility data is recorded passively.

To win over customers, in addition to focusing on service, LittleThumb also uses workplace productivity as a selling point. To go back to the example of outpatients cited above, each missed appointment represents an average loss of £108, or €122, for the hospitals, according to the NHS. Improving their image also plays a role. For instance, Nel Samama refers to discussions held with representatives from a major Parisian university campus, “For such an institution, which regularly hosts guest speakers and visitors, it’s important that these individuals have a good experience on the site.”

The start-up is targeting a number of markets in addition to traditional buildings: amusement parks, underground parking lots, etc. The trick will be convincing decision-makers to equip the infrastructures: one of the future challenges will be successfully installing the technology in enough places so that using it becomes a habit for users. If it does so, it could help take digital technology’s contribution to mobility a step further.

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