Written by Andrew Seale

Hongwei Liu reaches for Hobbes, who slips his grip and disappears through a crevice in the back of the couch. “He’s been doing this since we moved in, it’s his favourite spot,” explains the co-founder and CEO of Waterloo-based MappedIn as he opens the lounge part of the sofa to reveal the stretched out office cat.

Again he reaches, again Hobbes gracefully dodges his hands. It’s second nature for the cat to know his world so well – a world that didn’t even exist in his memory bank a week ago – and move instinctually through it. But for us humans, movement can be an awkward thing.

We’ve tried to tackle it by hurling satellites into orbit to reflect the world from above back at us. We’ve smashed together ones and zeros into programs to take that data and map it out, to guide us to stores, to new cities, to friends places – wherever, whenever.

But when you put us indoors, we become such useless things. And our ability to map indoor spaces reflects that, says Liu.

“Outdoors we've become increasingly used to digital maps and perfect information,” he says. “Indoors we're still back in the 1960s.”

It’s strange to Liu, considering there are three billion buildings on earth and we spend 87 per cent of our time inside those buildings. “They're managed by ten million people and the digital record of the physical space is awful… they can't even keep up.”

Not until MappedIn came around, that is. And it’s such a simple concept – indoor navigation – spun out of the so-called “unoriginal” spitballing of a group of University of Waterloo students hanging out in Velocity, the school’s entrepreneurship residence. But it was addicting to tackle such a simple problem with no clear solution, especially for the engineering student who felt bored and unengaged in his day-to-day studies.

“What made it compelling enough to keep working on was always the sense that when you work at school you get grades, when you work at this it feels more real,” says Liu. By 2011, they’d launched the concept under the moniker MappedIn and in 2013, Liu dropped out of school to pursue it full-time.

Fast-forward the years of hammering it out, Liu tossing every cent he had into the first screens to sell to Conestoga Mall, the Dragon’s Den appearance that wooed the entire team of TV dealmakers, and you get to today, to MappedIn’s impending domination of the sphere.

“We thought our problem was to solve the user experience… how do we build a cooler app than what they had, how do we build a screen to replace the piece of paper?” says Hongwei. “It turns out the underlying problem is how do you even keep the map up to date? Because that's the most important part of the user experience.”

The company has pushed into both print and digital supplying a suite of tools for creating and maintaining maps of indoor spaces (“like a word processor for maps,” explains Liu).

“We now work with about 90 percent of the tier-one retail space in Canada across all the major landlords,” he says. “We have about 40 percent of the tier-one retail space in the US and some marquee international clients like the mall in Dubai.”

And MappedIn is taking it beyond just malls to individual stores, hospitals, and airports, all through the lens of productivity. That’s what’s keeping the tireless entrepreneur and the 48 employees at MappedIn busy these days – what’s the causal relationship between better digital search wayfinding and productivity of revenue?

“Then you take that to a non-commercial setting like a hospital where people show up late all the time for appointments because they say they got lost and that costs OHIP a lot of money,” he says.

And that’s where MappedIn’s mission lies both on the backend with the map scribblers, the maintainers, and on the front-end with the people trying to get to where they want to go. It’s not about the colour of the map, says Liu. “It needs to make people better… and that's what we always focus on.”

Photo Credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)