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Shopper surveillance: Wifarer lets Boston's Pru track you

The Prudential Center mall is the latest complex to adopt technology by Wifarer that lets merchants blast info directly to your smartphone via an app.

Wifarer's new app for the Prudential Center

The location-based craze is moving indoors--fast.

A startup called Wifarer today announced that Boston's Prudential Center is now fully outfitted with indoor positioning software so that the many stores within the complex can pinpoint your location within 4 to 5 feet.

But don't freak out.

Unlike a startup called Euclid, which tracks your every step so long as your carrying a Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone, Wifarer only works after you've downloaded the app. No app, you're invisible, so the choice really is yours.

A number of companies (from biggies like Cisco Systems and Google to fast-growing upstarts like Shopkick) are finding ways to take smart phone mapping indoors and make that useful for store owners and consumers.

Wifarer's proposition is that its system puts the merchant in total control of who sees what promotions, so a shopper inside the Gap, for instance, won't suddenly receive a J. Crew promotion. The company's other pitch is that the retailer doesn't need to install any hardware; Shopkick's retail partners, for example, must install sensors that communicate with its apps.

Wifarer's system is software based. The technology pulls in your phone's data through a building's Wi-Fi system and constantly updates your location based in part on how strong the signal is on your phone. As you move about about the mall, the app shows you on the map as it follows you to different floors and even slightly outside the building.

Part of the appeal for a shopper is that you don't need a bunch of apps for each retailer and you can use a single app to navigate an entire venue. Download one for the Prudential Center and you're set. The more than 75 stores and restaurants within the complex can shoot you promotions as you pass by or use the system to manage loyalty points. The retailers license the software from Wifarer and only pay when they snag a potential customer.

"The retailer will pay for that shopper who has walked in," said Philip Stanger, the CEO and co-founder of the startup, which is based in San Jose, Calif. "We equate it to Google Adwords for the physical world."

And that's the proposition for the retailer. Stanger said that the system is rolling out in several airports this Spring, and it's already being tested in at Boston Logan Airport and British Columbia's Royal BC Museum.

The whole thing gets futuristic fast. A venue can use a dashboard to drag and drop content anywhere they want on the map. A museum, for instance, might want to add an interview with a paleontologist that shows up beside a specific exhibit. Wifarer's also working with signage companies that will change signs depending on what they read off your phone--even switching from, say, English to Spanish.

"It's a Minority Report-type effect," said Stanger.