Indoor location technology remains a hot topic and a potential game-changer for location intelligent retailers and a myriad of other industries. Executive Editor Wes Stroh interviewed Dan Ryan, CEO of ByteLight, about light field communication, or Li-Fi, for indoor positioning as determined by LED light fixtures.
Directions Magazine (DM): Recent press releases have pointed to ByteLight’s success in initial funding rounds. Tell us a little bit about your technology and company strategy/vision.
Dan Ryan (DR): ByteLight is a retail indoor location provider. Its technology is software that modulates LED lights within retail outlets and large public venues. This enables communication with the cameras on customers’ smartphones and determines their location. ByteLight provides a more accurate and cost-effective indoor location solution for retailers by embedding the technology within the preexisting lighting infrastructure. Each retailer can then send information, redemptions, maps and services to customers via their mobile device at precise locations within the store. Our vision is that each LED light can be a beacon of information, functioning in the exact same way as GPS satellites do in space, only in this case they will be in every building in the world transmitting data.
DM: How does light field communication (LFC) differ from other indoor positioning technologies, both active and passive? How accurate is LFC positioning?
DR: Light field communication, or li-fi as some refer to the medium, operates very similar to Bluetooth Low Energy in terms of being low energy, highly responsive and accurate. The difference being, of course, that it’s optical and opt-in in terms of needing to have your phone outside of your pocket to work, and the infrastructure is already built for it. There are nearly 40 different players in the space using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other technologies in an attempt to address indoor location. ByteLight’s differentiation is its accuracy and cost-effectiveness.
Prior to ByteLight, no indoor location provider had been able to get as accurate, without adding substantial overhead costs. The great thing for retailers is that we're turning an infrastructure cost (lighting) into a valuable source of data and a means by which they can engage with customers and employees. This is important as retailers of all sizes make the switch from incandescent and fluorescent lamps to LEDs, with new energy efficiency standards coming into place in 2014. We believe the history of computing illustrates the future for lighting - and how big communication through light can be. Like computing, lighting's value capture will move away from the basic components it's made out of and into the data it can transmit and enable.
DM: Explain how iBeacon and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) relate to indoor positioning? Are they OS/device agnostic or are we seeing a divide between Apple and Google Android applications?
DR: BLE can be used for indoor location, but that's not really what the technology was designed for. Its primary use case is around connecting things - think about putting a beacon in your luggage at the airport and receiving a notification when your bag pops into the baggage carousel. iBeacon is software that is embedded into Apple's new iOS so that is certainly device specific. BLE on the other hand (the hardware beacons) are agnostic. Qualcomm, for instance, recently announced its own version of beacons with Gimbal, which supports iOS today and will support Android in the future.
DM: How rapidly are retailers deploying technologies such as yours? How was the 2013 holiday shopping season different than prior years as a result of indoor positioning capabilities?
DR: Holiday shopping season 2014 will really be the breakout year for indoor location in retail stores. There were some retailers like Macy’s publicly trialing indoor location at a handful of stores during this past holiday season, but those were small implementations. Apple did rollout iBeacon nationwide with Bluetooth LE sensors throughout their stores this holiday period. However, users had to have the Apple Store app downloaded to be able to receive in-store information and users pointed to the location-enabled information being very basic. We were doing private trials with major big-box retailers, but haven't rolled out those publicly yet. It was really the first inning of the indoor location market. Next holiday season you’ll see retailers and even CPGs utilizing indoor location platforms to engage shoppers with aisle-specific deals and interactive media on a large scale. In order to do that though, they also need to be sure that they build a winning application on the mobile side to ensure customers are getting a unique indoor location experience in using the mobile app in-store.
DM: What other applications are you seeing for ByteLight?
DR: We're really focused on the retail space currently, but there are hundreds of potential applications for ByteLight and indoor location. Indoor location promises to be bigger than GPS, given we spend 90% of our time inside. One specific example would be at a large warehouse or industrial complex where you could garner location information on stock and employees, as well as analytics on building usage. However, applications could be built on top of the platform in museums, hospitals, airports, etc.
In that regard we're really building an entirely new ecosystem for businesses. There will be billion dollar businesses that grow on top of this new ecosystem, just as companies like Uber have grown into multi-billion dollar companies on top of the GPS ecosystem.