By Gina Clifford http://www.wired.com/geekmom/2013/01/bytelight-indoor-mapping/
We’ve taken something that’s been around since Edison and turned it into a way of transmitting information.” -Dan Ryan, CTO of ByteLight
Dan Ryan and Aaron Ganick, both Electrical Engineers, met at Boston University as undergrads. They became quick friends as they continued to bump into each other in class and around campus. Little did they know that a common childhood passion and a local science museum would play prominent roles in shaping their futures.
At the 2011 TEDGlobal conference, Harald Haas demonstrated sending data through LED lights to project video onto a screen without an external wi-fi source. However, Dan and Aaron, recent Boston University Grads, invented a unique extension of this breakthrough–using LED lights to transmit location information to mobile devices within buildings. Even Google, which relies on wi-fi for mapping the insides of buildings, has not been terribly successful in mapping interior locations.
Enter ByteLight, Aaron’s and Dan’s small start-up based entirely around proprietary software that can accurately map the inside of buildings using only LED lighting to transmit location information. So, with the trend toward LED lighting replacing fluorescents in many buildings throughout the world and the continued growth of mobile smart devices, LED lights that broadcast location data stands to revolutionize how we interact within shopping malls, museums, trade shows, office buildings, factories, and even airports and airplanes.
Each ByteLight-enabled LED light broadcasts a proprietary signal that a smart device camera can detect. ByteLight’s platform delivers location information to easily update visitors with real-time maps and related location-based information without an active network connection. ByteLight administration features even enable building staff to analyze visitor traffic patterns and measure engagement.
ByteLight’s firmware can be licensed to LED manufacturers, who embed the ByteLight technology directly into the LED lamp as it is being manufactured. In fact, ByteLight recently licensed LED manufacturer, Solais, to produce ByteLight-enabled LED lighting for commercial and enterprise building solutions. Soon, you’ll be able to download a ByteLight app that can be used wherever ByteLight technology is used. Personally, I would love grocery stores to read my grocery list and outline the best route through the store–I’d settle for a map that pinpoints where to find the coconut milk.
For now, the best way to experience ByteLight in the wild is to visit the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts, where ByteLight has been installed in the Cahners ComputerPlace exhibit. With specially equipped iPads loaded with a custom app, patrons explore the exhibit as the device camera interacts with the “smart” LEDs to display specialized content. Best of all, the museum is already switching to LED lighting, so ByteLight fits nicely into the budget. In fact, compared to other interior location based service solutions such as QR codes and wi-fi, the Museum’s Director of Information and Interactive Technology, Marc Check, thinks that ByteLight is the most economical solution. And Marc has researched options extensively. In his experience, wi-fi isn’t reliably accurate or dependable within a few feet—plus, the infrastructure is expensive and there’s often lots of latency. QR codes seem inexpensive until you compare the trade-offs. QR codes are not aesthetically pleasing, especially within art installations. Also, there’s a layer of abstraction to managing the codes, statistics, and integration with the museum’s existing content management system. Furthermore, QR codes are not interactive.
CTO, Dan Ryan, and CEO, Aaron Ganick, both credit the Museum of Science in Boston with inspiring them, as children, to pursue electrical engineering in college. And as fate would have it, the very museum that inspired Dan and Aaron’s careers just became the home of the first ByteLight installation. Aaron credits one of the most inspirational college professors he’s ever met, Dr. Thomas Little, Associate Director of the NSF Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, with empowering, challenging, and mentoring him. A fellow entrepreneur, Dr. Little understands how to prepare researchers for technology entrepreneurship.
ByteLight is just getting started. In spite of the fact that they’ve built a solid product and partnered strategically to mass-produce and install their invention for location based services inside buildings, both Aaron and Dan dream bigger.
They won’t admit to any solid plans for future development, but as location-based services through ByteLight technology matures, expect to see integration with accessibility, safety, entertainment, and even energy conservation applications. In fact, ByteLight provides developers with an SDK so that others can dream up applications that have not even been imagined yet.
So, as science literally comes full circle for Dan, Aaron, and the Museum of Science, the next chapter is already being written. Each day, youngsters enter the Museum of Science, iPad in hand, eagerly interacting with the Cahners exhibit. Just like the Internet, tablet, and smart devices, these kids will grow up to expect to see this technology everywhere in their lives—and it is just getting started.
Over the past few months the University has been upgrading outdoor lights on buildings across campus and replacing the old metal halide bulbs with more energy efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. LED bulbs use less power (watts) relative to the amount of light generated (lumens) and also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by saving energy. Two-hundred A19 (typical screw-in base) LED bulbs can save enough energy per year compared to a 60W incandescent to power an entire home in the United States all year. These A19 LED bulbs can last up to 25,000 hours while metal halide bulbs usually last about 2,500 hours. The Custodial staff is using the freed up labor to expedite this upgrade effort to other sections of the campus.
The replacement of these lights is part of a larger energy saving initiative that also includes the retrofitting of interior light fixtures with more efficient bulbs across campus to create a unified standard of lighting. Since the sustainability initiative began in September 2008, 14 lighting retrofit projects have been done across 12 locations including the Fitness & Recreation Center, Agganis Arena, Mugar Library, Sargent College, George Sherman Union, College of Arts & Sciences, and Myles Standish Hall. Metal halide, T12, and other lower performing fluorescent bulbs were replaced with high-performance super-T8 or T5 fluorescent bulbs which typically use 10-15% less energy. All halogen bulbs were replaced with more efficient LED or compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs. These projects have resulted in a savings of 5,794,883 kWh/year and 2,706 metric tons of CO2e/year, which equals 497 cars or 69,385 trees.
In addition, all new buildings on campus are being outfitted with energy efficient lighting. The use of LED lighting in the new Center for Student Services helped to reduce lighting energy consumption by 53% over a typical building of the same type. Recently the lights in the alley adjacent to the Center for Student Services were upgraded as well with fixtures that are 44% more efficient than the existing lights. LED A19 bulbs are also being installed in boiler rooms and mechanical spaces with high ceilings, replacing the CFL lamps installed within the last two years to save even more energy.
Since the bulbs last much longer than before there is also a significant reduction in maintenance and cost as they don’t need to be replaced as often meaning in-house staff can be used more efficiently. The project has resulted synergy between environmental awareness and operational efficiency. Tim O’Connor, FM&P’s Electrical Manager, is extremely happy as the need for routine bulb replacement has drastically decreased which allows for his staff to provide better services in other areas. The routine building lamp replacement labor savings have also allowed custodial staff to maintain higher cleaning standards.
The next phase of the project will be the replacement of the incandescent bulbs in pole lights across campus. So far 2 pole lights have been retrofitted with LED and there are plans to replace 50 more, all of which would be eligible for a rebate from NSTAR.
By Mark Dwortzan
Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen has appointed Professor Thomas D.C. Little (ECE, SE) as the College of Engineering’s associate dean for Educational Initiatives. Little will be responsible for overseeing, implementing, catalyzing and designing new and existing College-wide and cross-college or school educational initiatives that involve innovation in curriculum design or course delivery in undergraduate, graduate and professional education programs.
“Tom has expertise and passion for emerging educational technologies and digital education methodologies that are anticipated to radically impact engineering education,” said Lutchen. “As associate dean, he will advance new programs with other schools and colleges at BU, continue to advance our professional masters programs, oversee innovative faculty teaching programs and help the college navigate the impact of digital technologies on engineering education.”
“It’s an exciting time to be involved in education,” said Little, who has served as associate chair of both undergraduate and graduate studies in ECE. “Students now enter the university adept with personal media devices and with expectations of constant connectivity to social networks, search engines, streaming media and global information resources and peers. Like other societal conventions in transformation, there is a wonderful opportunity for engineering education to adapt to these changes to enhance and enrich the outcomes of our program.”
Little succeeds Professor Donald Wroblewski (ME). As the College’s first associate dean for Educational Initiatives, Wroblewski implemented the Engineers in the Real World program for sophomores, helped create the new Technology Innovation concentration jointly with the School of Management, recruited and worked with Kern Faculty Fellows on the ENG faculty and boosted enrollment in the College’s suite of MEng programs from about 20 incoming students to nearly 130 expected this fall.
“He did all this in an extremely collegial and engaging fashion,” said Lutchen, “and has created the scaffolds from which Tom Little can now help us transform engineering education for the future creation of societal engineers.”
To effect that transformation, Little will draw on extensive experience in research, outreach and entrepreneurship.
His research explores the intersection of networking, free-space optical communications and the “anywhere” computing that they enable. For example, he is principal investigator and associate director of the NSF Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center, where his work is centered on the adaptation of novel LED-based materials, devices and systems for the support of health, productivity and energy benefits. He is a Senior Member of the IEEE and a member of the Association for Computing Machinery.
A past winner of the College of Engineering Faculty Service Award, Little has participated in outreach activities such as the BU Summer Challenge Program, Summer Pathways and the College of Engineering UDesign Program. Named as a Kern Faculty Fellow in 2010 for his work in developing innovative ways to stimulate the entrepreneurial mindset among undergraduates, he is a successful entrepreneur and has served as an advisor to ParkWhiz, Cantina Consulting, Bytelight and other companies.
ByteLight Emerges from Stealth Mode with $1.25 Million in Funding for “GPS-like” Indoor Positioning System
The company, founded by Boston University alumni, can pinpoint indoor location and movement in real-time with market-leading accuracy using LED lighting, creating a new mobile-based services platform for retail, commercial, and corporate enterprise customers.
CAMBRIDGE, MA, October 16, 2012 - ByteLight, a provider of LED (light-emitting diode) based indoor positioning technology, today announced that it has received $1.25 million in funding from individual and institutional investors, led by VantagePoint Capital Partners. ByteLight will use the funding to build its team, deploy at pilot locations and expand its ecosystem of lighting partners. Using ByteLight’s LED lighting-based indoor positioning solution, commercial and enterprise building owners, public safety officials, retail outlets and public spaces such as airports, museums and convention centers can target customized information, special offers and other data directly to users based on their precise location inside a building.
“Accurate indoor positioning has been described as the ‘holy grail’ of location-based services,” said Aaron Ganick, CEO and Co-founder of ByteLight. “We provide an enabling, breakthrough technology for the next generation of indoor-location applications. Our platform makes it easy for shoppers to navigate retail stores and find products, manages and optimizes enterprise employee operations, turns mobile devices into tour guides within a museum or public building, and helps people find colleagues and booths while attending trade shows or other events – the applications for this technology are truly endless.”
ByteLight’s patented solution turns LED light sources into positioning beacons. “ByteLight-enabled” lights transmit proprietary signals which can be picked up by camera equipped mobile devices. Once signals are detected, the device then calculates its position without the need for an active network connection – ByteLight’s market-leading indoor positioning solution is accurate to less than one meter and takes less than a second compute. To enhance the functionality of their solution, the company also offers tools that make it simple to provide location-based digital content, analyze traffic patterns and measure engagement.
To bring the technology to market, ByteLight is partnering with innovative LED lighting manufacturers who license and incorporate its technology directly into their lighting products. The value proposition for LED lighting has traditionally been centered around greater energy efficiency and longer life cycles. ByteLight is enhancing the commercial value of LEDs by turning them into more than just sources of illumination, thereby accelerating adoption of LED technology in the market.
“In the evolution of mapping and navigation, indoors is the next frontier,” said Michael Boland, mobile analyst with BIA/Kelsey, an analysis firm focused on local media. “A wide range of applications and verticals can benefit, such as leading retail customers to the right product, and ultimately to the cash register. It’s the ‘last inch’ problem in local commerce, and ByteLight is literally operating on that level of location granularity.”
In the same way that GPS revolutionized the outdoor world, creating new business opportunities and mobile applications alike, location based services are poised to disrupt the indoor world. By offering a solution which overcomes cost, accuracy, and latency barriers, ByteLight is building the platform for the next generation of indoor location.
“ByteLight’s beauty is in its simplicity,” adds CTO and Co-founder Dan Ryan. “The technology delivers unprecedented, sub-meter accuracy and is extremely responsive when compared to other indoor positioning solutions. It works on existing smartphones, and the best part is that we are leveraging one of the most ubiquitous technologies found inside almost every building in the world – lighting. By transforming lighting into a platform, ByteLight enables venue owners and tenants to turn an infrastructure cost into a valuable source of data and a means by which they can communicate to customers and employees indoors with pinpoint accuracy.”
Based in Cambridge, MA, Bytelight is a provider of market-leading indoor positioning solutions using an innovative LED lighting based technology. ByteLight’s solution leverages the existing lighting infrastructure to deliver unprecedented accuracy and responsiveness. This enables venue owners with the ability to offer information to people at precise locations inside buildings through smart phones and other devices. For more information visit www.bytelight.com.
About VantagePoint Capital Partners:
VantagePoint Capital Partners is a global leader in financing and supporting transformative companies primarily focused on energy innovation and efficiency. With a best-in-class investment team of business and scientific experts, a broad network of corporate Strategic Partners, accomplished Senior Advisors, and more than $4 billion in committed capital, the Firm has the resources and talent to build important, industry-leading companies. Headquartered in Silicon Valley with offices in Hong Kong and Beijing, VantagePoint has active investments in over 70 companies, including Liquid Robotics, SWITCH Lighting, Bridgelux, Genomatica, Solazyme, Trilliant, Tendril and Better Place. For more information, visit www.vpcp.com.
This article was first reported on Bytelight.
“BU Startup, Bytelight Receives Funding from U-Launch”
“Bytelight Featured in MIT’s Technology Review”
Using Overhead Lights for Wireless Communications Promises to Substantially Increase the Capacity of Existing Wireless Networks
Researchers from the NSF Smart Lighting Center have demonstrated the capacity for novel energy-efficient LED lighting to provide data access networks that are complementary to existing wireless systems. By modeling the line-of-sight characteristics of light and the capacity for light to be used to communicate data bits, LED lighting has been shown to have very high capacity for supporting wireless communications that have now become ubiquitous. Moreover, light-based wireless communications can ‘reuse’ the available lighting spectrum in very small spaces – small lighting cells that are placed at approximately 1m apart can serve independent wireless channels whereas existing wireless (WiFi) transmitters compete for available spectrum. Center researchers demonstrated how the combination of the LED light-based cells and existing WiFi can complement each other in providing wireless access that can scale – expand to meet increasing data demand, by the addition of lighting cells and/or WiFi access points.
Impacts and benefits
With the evolution of mobile telephony and personal computing to modern smartphones and tablets has come a dramatic increase demand for wireless data delivery. These mobile devices are readily available to render rich media delivery including video and their users are actively generating this data traffic demand, sometimes beyond the limits of the network service providers. Cisco forecasts that fixed position wireless traffic will see a 39% annual growth rate between 2010 and 2015; however the capacity of RF communication techniques has not seen comparable gains in recent years. While user demand is increasing much faster than RF capacity, we have begun to see a wireless traffic jam in the RF spectrum. Without mitigation, we are on a path of ‘data starvation’ as mobile platforms are increasingly adopted in existing applications and in emerging applications including heath care, transportation, and commerce.
The NSF Smart Lighting ERC team approached this challenge from a systems perspective – by understanding the multiple interacting demands imposed on indoor environments related to health, safety, productivity, and energy efficiency and by leveraging the skills of a diverse team of scientists and engineers in the context of lighting systems. The result is a technical solution that intersects critical societal outcomes with diverse specialized knowledge for constructing energy efficient LED-based communications. The critical discovery reported here establishes the motivation for the implementation of a cooperative system that uses WiFi and LED lighting devices in development to provide scalable performance and operating characteristics relating to wireless communication.
Explanation and Background
The work stems from the need for additional wireless capacity due to growing demand for wireless services and applications. Two trends that come from CISCO’s Visual Network Index report show that consumer traffic will be dominated by internet video and that the majority of wireless traffic is expected to come from “fixed-position” wireless devices. Considering both of these trends, cooperative systems as proposed in this work provide enormous benefits for wireless communication. First, the asymmetric nature of the proposed system is a great fit for internet video systems which are predominantly downstream traffic. This alludes to the idea that a large percentage of wireless traffic caused by video streaming can be offloaded from the RF medium to the Visible Light Communication (VLC) channels. Additionally, the indication that most wireless traffic comes from fixed-position devices would allow a mobile user to move to a VLC hotspot and remain in place during use – hence removing much of the overhead associated with handover as a user traverses the environment.
In a cooperative system, VLC capable users benefit from higher data rates and channel reuse provided by VLC cells while the removal of congestive traffic from the RF medium provides benefits to non-VLC users. As users contend for the RF medium, the probability of a packet collision is reduced as high data rate video streams are offloaded to the VLC channels. This improves the throughput of the RF channel while adding the capacity provided by VLC channels – leading to drastic gains in aggregate throughput within the environment. We have shown through simulation that these gains are scalable with the number of VLC channels and that a cooperative system performs better than either system acting alone under static conditions.
Current research within the Smart Lighting ERC is focusing on optimal protocols for traffic distribution with considerations for mobile users and dynamic signal conditions. As a user traverses through an environment, they should dynamically connect to the network via the optimal channel. The concept of handover determines when the traffic flow from AP to user should be routed to a different channel. This can include transfer from one cell to another or between the RF and VLC channels. Simple protocols observe received signal from multiple channels and select the optimal; however the research in the ERC focuses on predictive methods that account for estimated future conditions in the handover decision. Since there is innate overhead involved in handover, predictive methods allow a system to weigh the benefit of a handover versus the overhead necessary to actually reroute traffic. When considering a mobile user, predictive handover decisions estimate a user’s motion path in order to determine when a handover is unnecessary – as in the case when a user is passing through the outer edge of a cell. Additionally, they can observe VLC signal conditions to predict whether a signal loss is due to a blocking condition or a user moving out of range of the signal. In the former it is optimal to delay the handover with the assumption that the signal will return while the latter benefits from an immediate handover as it is unlikely that the user will come back in range before the handover is complete.
By Mike Rahaim and Thomas Little
Monday, February 13, 2012
A startup believes combining LED technology and smart-phone apps will offer precise indoor location data.
When you go to the grocery store, chances are you find yourself hunting for at least a couple of items on your list. Wouldn't it be easier if your smart phone could just give you turn-by-turn directions to that elusive can of tomato paste or bunch of cilantro, and maybe even offer you a discount on yogurt, too?
That's the idea behind ByteLight, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup founded by Dan Ryan and Aaron Ganick. ByteLight aims to use LED bulbs—which will fit into standard bulb sockets—as indoor positioning tools for apps that help people navigate places such as museums, hospitals, and stores, and offer deals targeted to a person's location.
Accurate indoor navigation is currently lacking. While GPS is good for finding your way outdoors, it doesn't work as well inside. And technologies being used for indoor positioning, such as Wi-Fi, aren't accurate enough, Ryan and Ganick say.
Ryan and Ganick feel confident they're in the right space at the right time: there's not only been a boom in location-based services, but also in smart-phone apps such as Foursquare or Shopkick that use these services. Meanwhile, LEDs are increasingly popular as replacements for traditional lightbulbs (due to their energy efficiency and long life span).
ByteLight grew out of the National Science Foundation-funded Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at Boston University, which Ganick and Ryan, both 24, took part in as electrical engineering undergrads.
Initially, ByteLight focused on using LEDs to provide high-speed data communications—a technology referred to as Li-Fi. But Ryan and Ganick felt their technology was better suited to helping people find their way around large indoor spaces.
Here's how it might work: you're in a department store that has replaced a number of its traditional lightbulbs with ByteLights. The lights, flickering faster than the eye can see, would emit a signal to passing smart phones. Your phone would read the signal through its camera, which would direct the smart phone to pull up a deal offering a discount on a shirt on a nearby rack.
While Wi-Fi can only accurately determine your position indoors to within about five to 10 meters, Ryan and Ganick say, ByteLight's technology cuts this down to less than a meter—close enough for you to easily figure out which shirt the deal is referring to.
ByteLight is working on a functioning prototype, and hopes to have the first products available within a year. Ryan and Ganick say a number of developers are working on smart-phone apps that would include the technology, which, they feel, could also work as an additional (or smarter) location-finding feature within existing apps.
The company is talking to retailers about installing its equipment in stores, too. Ryan and Ganick think businesses will warm to ByteLight because installation mainly requires buying and screwing in their lightbulbs. Once a business installs the lights, they'll need to use a ByteLight mobile app to determine which light corresponds to which spot in their building, Ganick says. An app developer could then use that data to tag deals to different lights.
And while LED bulbs are more costly than standard lightbulbs, they've been falling in price. ByteLight says its bulbs will be only "marginally" more expensive than existing LEDs.
Jeffrey Grau, an analyst with digital marketing company eMarketer, believes ByteLight may be on to something. If the customers are already inside a store, showing them an exclusive offer makes it more likely they'll buy something.
But will shoppers find ByteLight's targeting creepy? Ryan and Ganick don't think so. They say an app on your smart phone would be "listening" for nearby ByteLights, not the other way around. So users can control their own experience. And the LED bulbs' positioning capabilities could help people inside a large building solve the common problem of figuring out where they are. "We want people to think about lightbulbs in an entirely new way," Ganick says.
Written by Rachel Metz
From an office building in Kendal Square, two Boston University alumni have developed technology that can connect people with the businesses and environments around them through LED lighting.
Aaron Ganick and Dan Ryan , 2010 graduates of College of Engineering, will soon launch a company called ByteLight. Their startup focuses on transmitting information from LED light bulbs. While the technology remains in development, they plan to implement it into retail space and make it connect with mobile devices.
“We believe that mobile is the future of retail,” Ryan said.
Bytelight’s technology can determine the most effective display placements in stores, products and floor plans, Ryan said.
ByteLight’s LED lighting also has the potential to provide global positioning in large, indoor places such as airports, shopping malls and supermarkets, according to the January 2012 newsletter from the Institute of Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization.
Ganick and Ryan researched lighting as undergraduates in the Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at BU, where they worked for several summers.
They said after taking a class entitled “The Business of Technology Innovation,” taught by School of Management professor Paul Levine, Ganick and Ryan started to consider pursuing entrepreneurial careers. They decided to take that route with the LED technology in 2010.
“We saw a big opportunity,” Ganick said. “Costs of LEDs were dropping and locational services were growing.”
Thomas Little, associate director of the Smart Lighting ERC, said locational lighting technology could be used for asset tracking in large indoor complexes such as hospitals and laboratories.
“It’s potentially as big an industry as outdoor location services,” he said.
ByteLight first operated out of a BU incubator and then moved to Dogpatch Labs, a venture designed to provide entrepreneurs with connections and launch startups, Ryan said.
While they hinted they may have found a lighting partner for the venture, neither one would name the potential partner, elaborate on their marketing plan or give a timeframe for an official launch.
“We’re in stealth mode,” Ganick said.
Though the specifics of ByteLight’s technology do not relate to or receive funding from BU, the venture has gotten support from BU faculty.
Babak Kia, an adjunct professor in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, called Ganick an engineer who “builds a better future” by fusing his technical vision and leadership skills.
“He and his team are driven by an unyielding passion to invent the future, and his startup – one of Boston’s hottest – will revolutionize indoor location in much [of] the same way as Google Maps has done for outdoor location,” Kia said in an email interview.
Little said the engineering degree at BU is designed to help students become analytical thinkers and problem solvers, which Ryan and Ganick demonstrate.
“To be successful once leaving BU requires the ability to adapt,” Little said. “[This is] especially true in the entrepreneurial world where the problems are much more diverse.”
Little said ByteLight exemplifies how Smart Lighting ERC helps students learn how to apply their analytical skills.
“Both Aaron and Dan have demonstrated the ability to adapt quickly to changing technology,” he said.
Written by Thea Di Giammerino
Smart Spaces: Smart Lighting ERC Industry-Academia Days 2012
February 13-14, 2012 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
Imagine a world where efficient, digital lighting makes us healthier and more productive, produces significant energy savings, and even provides wireless, optical access to the internet. The Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center will develop new technologies and applications to change the way society uses lighting.
Engineered Smart Lighting Systems will optically sense the environment to provide energy efficient, comfortable illumination when and where it is needed. Beyond illumination, Smart Lighting Systems will simultaneously provide high speed data access and scan for biological and biochemical hazards.
By Scott Kirsner
November 20, 2011
We’ve all had the experience of trying to find a particular product in a big box store apparently devoid of employees, or roaming the aisles of a vast convention center searching for a booth. While GPS displays in our cars or mapping apps on our phones can guide us to the parking lot, once you step inside, you’re in terra incognita.
The next big nut to crack in the navigation business is “indoor positioning,’’ which can solve problems as crucial as helping a fire chief understand where firefighters are within a burning building or as mundane as leading you to an ATM in an unfamiliar airport.
A Cambridge start-up called ByteLight is working on a solution that could be as simple as screwing in a light bulb. The company was spawned by Boston University’s Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center.
ByteLight hasn’t yet filed patents, so the founders won’t be specific about its technology, but the company is planning to use LED bulbs as a kind of indoor GPS satellite system. At the heart of an LED bulb is a cluster of light-emitting microchips, which can be programmed to flicker in a certain pattern invisible to the naked eye. But that pattern, viewed by the cameras built into most cellphones, would serve as a kind of address.
If the camera could see two or three of the bulbs above, it could get a very accurate fix on where you’re standing.
“LED lights are getting less expensive every day,’’ says cofounder Dan Ryan, “and location-based services are getting more important. Those are the two trends we’re trying to leverage.’’ Ryan says the company thinks its technology could be useful in places like museums, where you might use your mobile phone to find a particular piece of art.
But the company could also build its own devices that would continually collect positioning information from LED bulbs and relay it to a central station, perhaps to keep tabs on an expensive piece of equipment in a hospital, or a robot roaming through a factory. ByteLight thinks it will be able to determine a user’s - or a robot’s - position within 1 or 2 meters.
The three-person company hasn’t yet started to seek funding. “Right now, we’re just building’’ the necessary hardware and software, says Ryan.
Point Inside, a Seattle start-up, is a bit further along. The company has 29 employees, and has raised just over $2 million. But it is taking a different approach, trying to figure out where you are by reading the radio signals from Wi-Fi networks in a store, combined with information about your movements that are generated by the built-in accelerometer sensor in most smartphones.
Point Inside marketing executive Todd Sherman says the system is accurate to about 9 meters. (That’s a long stretch of shelving, if you’re looking for a particular product.)
Meijer, a Midwestern retailer, has been using the technology in its stores, enabling shoppers to create a shopping list on their phones before they arrive, and get a customized map that will guide them to the items on it. There’s also, of course, a marketing angle.
“If you put together a shopping list,’’ says Sherman, “we can tell when you’re getting close to the store and pop up a message that says, ‘If you come in today, we have a 20 percent discount for you.’ ’’ The system can also present offers for particular products located near where you’re standing.
Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have been thinking about the challenges of indoor positioning since a warehouse fire in Worcester killed six firefighters in 1999. Getting lost in a building is one of the biggest dangers of the occupation, says WPI professor R. James Duckworth, but firefighters may not have maps - or current maps - of every structure they encounter.
WPI researchers have been developing and testing what they call the Precision Personnel Locator. It uses a small wireless device, about the size of walkie-talkie, that attaches to a firefighter’s breathing apparatus. That device communicates with two or more receivers on the firetrucks. The receivers send information about each firefighter’s location to a ruggedized laptop that would be used by the incident commander.
“On the screen, you can see a kind of breadcrumb trail of pixels,’’ says WPI professor David Cyganski. “If someone gets lost, they can be talked back.’’ The WPI research has been funded by grants from government agencies like the Department of Justice and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
High-priced, custom-built systems for fire departments or the military could come first, given the obvious benefits. But like every technology that hasn’t yet been perfected, some still have questions about how useful indoor positioning will be for the average citizen, and what business models might support it.
“There’s really no burning imperative to provide these services,’’ says Greg Stirling, a senior analyst for Opus Research in San Francisco, “though it would be nice to have them if they existed.’’ (Sort of like Wi-Fi in hotel rooms, once a luxury and now a necessity?)
Stirling also questions whether marketers will feel there’s enough value in sending consumers messages on their mobile phones to try to persuade them to buy one brand of baked beans over another. “Getting the chief marketing officer of a consumer goods company interested in the person standing in Aisle 4 is really hard,’’ he says. “Often, their goal is something that has breadth and reach and scale.’’
But indoor positioning feels inevitable to me, especially when I find myself roaming the aisles of a big box store, or trying to catch a train at an unfamiliar station. As Duckworth, the WPI professor, puts it, “GPS has really set an expectation for people: I know where I am outside, so why can’t I get the same information inside?’’
For start date of September 1, 2012
We are seeking a postdoctoral researcher to join the Multimedia Communications Lab (MCL) supported by our research program in optical wireless communication, networking, and immersive lighting as part of the NSF Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center.
Our research is focused on a broad set of systems topics including
- Wireless communications
- Pervasive computing
- Networked embedded systems
- Privacy, trust, security
- Implementation of working systems and applications
We are particularly interested in candidates with backgrounds in (a) the PHY layer for high-speed free space optical systems, and (b) practical experience in network programming under Linux or embedded Linux; although we would be delighted to support a highly agile researcher who can adapt to any challenge in the topics on our research agenda. Candidates must be excellent communicators and be able to work in an interdisciplinary research environment; strong individually and strong as part of a team .
Send CV and statement of research objectives and plan to: Professor Tom Little