Near-field communications hasn’t exactly taken off as a verification technology, so a Boston-based start-up is proposing we try an alternative: light-field communications. ByteLight on Wednesday announced the launch of its LFC reader, a terminal the size of a deck of playing cards that can communicate with your smartphone through visible light.
ByteLight is trying to popularize the idea of the light-emitting diode as a transmitter of data – by varying the flicker of an LED, light bulbs wouldn’t just illuminate their surroundings, they could communicate information our devices could pick up through their camera phones’ sensors.
ByteLight’s ultimate goal is to turn any store’s lighting fixtures into a data-casting array, alerting customers of special offers, signing them into their loyalty programs and even providing them detailed maps of the show floor. That’s a pretty ambitious goal for small startup, so ByteLight decided to prove its technology with something a bit more modest, a countertop LFC reader that can be used the same way as an NFC scanner – except requiring no specialty chip in the phone.
The term LFC reader is actually a misnomer. Instead of scanning information from the phone like NFC or QR code reader, the LED lights in the device actually transmit data, which is then picked up by the camera sensor and interpreted by software in the phone. Any transaction is then processed by the retailer’s backend software in the cloud. It’s through this software-as-a-service model ByteLight plans to make its money.
According to ByteLight, the advantage in using LFC over NFC isn’t just accessibility (nearly all smartphones have cameras while NFC chips are harder to come by), but also expense and flexibility. The ByteLight reader is basically a programmable low-power light bulb that costs a fraction of what you’d pay for an NFC reader. And while in-store NFC readers are optimized for mobile payments, an LED reader can be programmed to transmit any information, whether it’s location details or in-store promotions.
In fact, ByteLight isn’t focusing on mobile payments at all – at least not yet. The reader’s initial use case is for loyalty programs. The LED reader can verify you’re physically at location or that you’ve made an in-person purchase and then credit your rewards account accordingly. Mobile retail platform maker Appconomy (see disclosure) is conducting a pilot project China. Appconomy’s customers Yummie House, Happy Lemon, Carrefour, Besyo and Golden Phoenix will use the reader and ByteLight’s software in 100 retail locations.
Disclosure: Appconomy is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of GigaOM/paidContent. Om Malik, founder of GigaOM, is also a venture partner at True.