A novel approach to navigating a city (and not getting lost)

Finding your way in an unfamiliar environment can be an unnerving experience and in many instances available signage isn't much help. Have you ever been in an airport shuttle and worried about whether it was the right one for your departure gate? GPS and Wi-Fi hotspots can help, but their accuracy and reliability can be impaired inside buildings. Researchers at the University of Hong Kong have developed what they believe is the perfect solution: a geocoded Smart Address Plate on buildings people can use to orient themselves. The system isn't on the market yet, but it's certainly a development cities should be watching closely because of its potential applications for enhancing city services, convenience and livability. — Doug Peeples


 When the Smart Address Plate (SAP), a type of sensor, is installed on the front of buildings people can access it through a mobile app to determine exactly where they are.

Specifically, it's a Bluetooth Low Energy proximity sensor with a geocoded Smart Address ID for the building it's installed on. Coupled with a SAP Management system, users can determine their location and how to get to their destination whether they're outside on a street or inside a building.

The research team from the Department of Urban Planning and Design at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) that developed the SAP system has created a Smart Address Coding System for all of Hong Kong's buildings by linking a new postal code with the global georeferenced coordinates of each building. That means the system can be deployed in all manner of buildings: from shopping malls and offices to parking lots and used for several purposes, including navigation, building management, data collection and delivery.

As research team lead Professor Anthony Yeh Gar-On, chair professor in GIS and urban planning and academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, explained "The invention provides an innovative and effective way in making sure that every building in a city will have a unique and easy to remember address code that is linked up with the shops and offices in a building for reliable and convenient navigation in a city, shopping mall or office building.

"Instead of asking people on the street or in a shopping mall and office building for directions, you will be able to find your location and directions from the Smart Address Plates, leading you from the street to the shops and restaurants that you are going to inside a shopping mall. Hong Kong can be the first city to use such an innovative and sophisticated Smart Address Plate System that combines navigation and management, and set a new standard for smart cities in the world."

When connected with the Smart Address Plate Databases, the SAP system can help property managers keep track of occupants, visitors, functions and other activities in their buildings. It also could be used to immediately alert app users to changes in meeting rooms or boarding gate changes at airports and guide them to the new location.

It's also not hard to see other areas where the SAP system could be of value for cities and the services they provide. Emergency responders would be able to find locations more quickly. And when used with other devices, it also could help motorists find their parking spaces, automatically open doors for people with disabilities and simplify the logistics of delivering goods and services.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.