Imagine you're at the grocery. You're in the toothbrush aisle, looking for a new toothpaste to brighten those pearly whites. About halfway down the aisle, as you're still deciding between brands, you receive a push notification on your phone — a coupon for Colgate, which just so happens to be right in front of you.
Little did you know, the General Electric LED lights above your head are programmed with tiny beacons, made by ByteLight, which are low-energy bluetooth locators that detect where exactly you were in the aisle and are programmed to send you a message when you were close enough to a certain product. And unlike other versions of beacons, these are compatible with almost any smart device.
It's part of the transition to the Internet of Things. While this beacon technology sounds invasive, it's not much different than GPS systems or other trackers we use outdoors.
"Light fixtures are an on ramp to have everything connected," said Jeff Bisberg of GE Lighting. "What better than to have a ubiquitous light fixture. It's a natural position [to do] that."
Lights are a convenient place to add sensors because they are always powered, and almost always on, especially in retail environments. This was the reason GE decided to add beacons to its LED lights, which it is pushing for the home and business. Each light is equipped with a beacon powered by the same source that generates the electricity. By putting these beacons and sensors high in the air, there's no worry of interaction with general public. With something on wall, a child may grab it, someone may bump into it and knock it off, or it may break easier. The GE beacons have longer battery life and lower maintenance requirements. The system works with any Android or iOS application on a smart device with a bluetooth technology.
Other brands have started to introduce technologies like this, but GE states they are the only company using a combination of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Visible Light Communication (VLC), which is a technology developed by their partner in the project, Boston-based ByteLight. The hybrid of these two technologies allows retailers and shoppers to have the cost-effectiveness, power supply (since there are no batteries needed) and accuracy of VLC, but also the connectivity of BLE.
"A shopper can have their phone in their pocket and get an alert of a nearby offer in-aisle via BLE and when they take out their phone get a specific message for the exact product they're in front of via VLC. BLE would know you're in the gaming aisle at Best Buy, but VLC would know you're in front of the PS4," said Dan Ryan, co-Founder and CEO of ByteLight.
According to GE, the lights can sense smartphones only three feet away, which is important in a grocery store or other retail space where many brands and objects stand within inches of each other.
"We're always listening to customers and it was almost a natural step forward once beaconing technology was out there," Bisberg said of the new system.
Bisberg described several other situations the beacons could be used besides the grocery store: if you're at a museum and decided to pass on the headset that tells you about the paintings, but later find one you want more about, a system like this could easily solve the problem. Download the app, and hear about one painting at a time for a small fee or for free.
Another situation, a version of which is already in place in some stadiums, is the option to upgrade seats or pre-order food or beverages through a venue's app once you're inside.
"This combines location, e-commerce, LED, and it combines social," Bisberg said. "It really is a culmination and now that all of these platforms have been elevated in performance, these new combinations are game-changers."
There's a real need for greater market intelligence in the retail space. It's under attack from internet and online retailing, Bisberg said, which is a natural progression. But now, retailers can use GE lights or other systems to win back the customer as well as provide real value and entertainment.
Using LED lights provides value for retailers because they use much less energy and last longer. Companies can see a 30 to 60% ROI by switching to LED bulbs, but the addition of beacons is added incentive to make the switch, Bisberg said.
Of course, privacy will remain the biggest issue. Bisberg was confident that the service GE will provide is completely opt-in on the customer's part. If they don't download the app or have their location services on, they won't receive any of the notifications. Most beacon technology makes the same claim, but the concern about gathering personal data remains.
"In a non-creepy way we need to to gain faith and trust of customers. It starts and ends with privacy and trust," Bisberg said. "We need to build this to work right in these environments."
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.