Forget WiFiSlam — ByteLight uses LEDs for indoor positioning
Satellite navigation has been one of the most important technological advances of the last 50 years. No matter how good the systems get, they still don’t work where we spend the majority of our time: the great indoors. Tools have been devised that cleverly use WiFi triangulation and “hybrid” GPS (say, GPS coordinates combined with sensor data from a compass, pedometer, and accelerometer), but these are inaccurate and generally unreliable. A company called ByteLight is trying to change this situation with a system that uses LED lighting to provide devices with accurate location data.
ByteLight’s indoor location system works by controlling the pulses of LEDs so they work in a certain pattern. This pattern is not detectable to the human eye (it’s working in the range of a hundreds of hertz), but can be picked up by the camera in a smartphone or tablet. Using the data gleaned from the LED modulation, the device works with an app and performs client-side calculations to figure out where it is within the structure. WiFi isn’t needed so networking is not a problem, and the calculations are performed on the device, so everything happens quickly.
A typical usage scenario — as best I can imagine it — would go something like this: You are walking through a convention center looking for a booth. You take out your smartphone and pull up the convention’s app. The app triggers the camera, which scans the LED lighting in the area and uses that data to find your current location — the more lights you are under, the more accurate the location data. You can then hold the phone and navigate to your destination, which is labeled on the built-in map, with your location data updating in near real-time. If there are any notable booths along the way, the app could notice your presence and inform you about them.
Using a form of visible light communication (VLC), ByteLight has a good shot at becoming a legitimate indoor location system. Before making any headway, the company will need buildings to move over to LED lighting, more specifically LED lighting with Byte Light-compatibility built-in. The good news here is that ByteLight apparently has no impact on the lights from a performance standpoint, and the cost of adding ByteLight’s logic to a product is negligible. The bad news is that existing LED systems are not upgradable — ByteLight’s tech needs to be built in from earlier on, which means companies need to partner with the startup. So far, ByteLight has only signed on Solais, though other partnerships are said to be in the works. Enough businesses have yet to move over to LED lighting that early adoption should not be a significant problem, but more potential clients are being lost every day.
ByteLight, as a product, is rather confusing. The startup doesn’t make lights, it doesn’t make lighting controllers, and it doesn’t even make drivers (the part inside an LED lamp that provides the power). ByteLight bills itself as a middleware provider, as it doesn’t sell the bulbs and it doesn’t sell the chips in the bulbs. Rather, it sells the technology that powers the chips and handles the apps that work with the cameras that read the LEDs. It’s not the easiest thing to explain, but someone has to be behind the scenes making sure everything plays together nicely. As for the relaying of information, it’s very simple: there is no data transferred. The lamp can be read as a unique ID. It has been described as essentially being a QR code on the ceiling.
While ByteLight is certainly a clever idea, and it’s poised to ride the growing LED lighting trend, the nature of the technology causes some limitations. First of all, any companies that have already made the move to LED lighting will not be able to consider ByteLight for their indoor location needs — the LED controls have to be built in from the start, so those 50,000 hour fixtures that your local museum just installed can’t be retrofitted. The company also needs partners, and ByteLight selling their tech to a GE or Philips is entirely possible, but its very much an instance of the tail wagging a very large dog. This will be especially apparent once the lamp manufacturer’s engineers are told they need to flicker their LEDs, even if it is at a rate that is too high for humans to recognize.
The good news is that not many buildings have converted to LED and the cost of adding ByteLight is said to be small, as no beacons or networking equipment is needed. Also, it could be easily added to a product like the next generation Philips’ Hue connected bulbs. So while ByteLight-compatibility has to come from the factory, a full product overhaul is not necessary.
As exciting as ByteLight is, it’s not the only indoor positioning game in town. Nokia is developing a Bluetooth 4.0-powered positioning system, and Apple, whose iPad was used in ByteLight’s demo at the Boston Museum of Science, just acquired a startup called WiFiSlam. WiFiSlam is said to discern indoor location using WiFi triangulation using the known location of cataloged WiFi signals (like a more accurate version of SkyHook). Regardless of the tech, the battle of indoor positioning is already being waged.
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