GE turns its LED fixtures into locating beacons with the help of ByteLight

GE(s ge) is working with visual light communications startup ByteLight to create networked light fixtures that can communicate with your smartphones using light and Bluetooth low energy. GE will target these new LED fixtures at retail businesses, using them as location-finding beacons.

Beacons are already starting to make their way into department stores, malls and sports stadiums around the world, using Bluetooth as a kind of sonar to determine when customers are present and then interact with them. For instance, as you move through Macy’s, your phone may bring up different coupons depending on which department you’re in.

GE is demoing ByteLight's technology in its Luminaire IS LED fixture at Lightfair (source: GE)
GE is demoing ByteLight’s technology in its Luminaire IS LED fixture at Lightfair (source: GE)

By adding visual light communications (VLC) to the mix, though, retailers could get much more precise location. Like Philips’ similar technology announced earlier this year, GE’s LEDs will emit different flickering light patterns undetectable to the human eye but perfectly visible to your phone’s camera. By comparing the intensity of different patterns from different sources, you get much more accuracy than BLE. “You can get sub-meter positioning with this technology,” ByteLight CEO and co-founder Dan Ryan told me in an interview.

If VLC is so accurate, why even mess with Bluetooth? Bluetooth is necessary to make that initial sonar ping. The BLE radio is always active and broadcasting — assuming you let it — whether it’s buried in your purse or tucked into your front pocket where light signals can’t reach. When your phone detects the Bluetooth signal, it launches the appropriate retailer’s app. Once you take your phone out of your pocket, the app activates the camera so it can use VLC to pinpoint your location, Ryan said.

In short, BLE knows you’re in Macy’s women’s apparel department, but VLC knows you’re standing in front of the Donna Karan dresses. That allows businesses to target their interactions with their shoppers much more precisely, Ryan said. Putting beacons into light fixtures has other advantages as well. Retailers can use their existing infrastructure, rather than deploy new separate beacon devices. The VLC and BLE transmitters draw power from the lighting grid and don’t need batteries.

ByteLight's light-field communications reader (source: ByteLight)
ByteLight’s light-field communications reader (source: ByteLight)

ByteLight has been developing its light communications technology since 2011, starting with its own near-field communications readers and proximity beacons that track light instead of radio waves. But Ryan said it was always the company’s intention to partner with lighting manufactures – GE definitely qualifies as a big one – since they are already supplying the light sources VLC needs to transmit its data. Lighting technology companies are equally receptive to the idea, Ryan said.

“They’re looking for the new things to sell to their customers beyond illumination,” Ryan said.

While GE isn’t yet announcing a specific LED product containing LightByte’s technology, it will be demoing a networked version of its Luminaire IS Series LED at the Lightfair conference in Las Vegas next week.