Apple has acquired WiFiSLAM, a Silicon Valley company focused on mapping indoor spaces.
Apple confirmed the deal to The Wall Street Journal, but wouldn't confirm an estimated sales price of $20 million. A spokesperson told The Journal that Apple "buys smaller technology companies from time to time" but wouldn't comment on any financial particulars.
The deal underscores the importance of the growing indoor mapping market, in which it is expected that Apple—as with the outdoor world—will compete first and foremost with Google.
Research firm IMS Research forecast in June 2012 that Apple, Google and Microsoft will be the dominant providers of mapping services for indoor spaces, and that by 2016, nearly 120,000 indoor venue maps will be available to consumers.
WiFiSLAM, according to The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW), was founded by Joseph Huang, a former Google engineering intern.
The SLAM in the title stands for simultaneous localization and mapping, a term for the way the company's technology uses WiFi signals in a building to quickly create a map of the space and a user's location in it.
In a video from a September 2012 GeoMeetup event, linked to by TUAW, Huang explained how SLAM works.
While some solutions rely on reporting of data, Huang said during a demo, "It turns out there's a way to do this with no reporting [of data] at all. As long as you have enough trajectories through an entire space, eventually some of their WiFi sequences will match up. If we can, piece by piece, like a puzzle, re-overlap these sequences, you can do something ... where you can start to fold these paths back on top of each other."
As Huang is speaking, a video shows the signals of two smartphones, one detecting whatever WiFi signals it can in a chaotic manner, while the other finds a pattern and continues to follow it, outlining and re-outlining the shape of the building—which in the case of the demo is a building at Huang's alma mater, Stanford University.
Last year, just ahead of what's traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year, Google made available mapping information to the interiors of 10,000 locations around world, including retail sites, airports and museums, via Google Maps 6.0 for Android.
"The familiar 'blue dot' icon indicates your location within several meters, and when you move up or down a level in a building with multiple floors, the interface will automatically update to display which floor you're on," Google explained in a blog post at the time. "All this is achieved by using an approach similar to that of 'My Location' for outdoor spaces, but fine-tuned for indoors."
Apple tried, with disastrous results, to kick Google's popular mapping software off its devices, with the introduction of an Apple Maps app in iOS 6. The app wound up being far from launch-ready, leading Apple CEO Tim Cook to publicly apologize for it—and reportedly let go of a key executive behind the effort.
Apple has yet to introduce a major release of a new Maps effort, but when it does, a solid indoor mapping feature may just be a part of it.