Philips is testing a beacon solution in Düsseldorf that uses LED lights to help shoppers find their way through the store. The system acts much the same as a Bluetooth LE powered beacon (or iBeacon – Apple’s version of the same thing).
While the company has made clear that it’s only demonstrating the technology and hasn’t made plans for a commercial roll-out, pundits are nonetheless headlining the news as a competitive dust-up.
“Philips takes on Apple’s iBeacon” proclaims The Verge:
The connected lighting system is Philips’ answer to a slew of emerging tools that allow retailers to interact with shoppers’ smartphones as they walk throughout a store. Most of these options — including the most prominent one, Apple’s iBeacon — rely on lightweight transceivers located in and around shopping displays to ping shoppers with deals and highlights when they move nearby.
Slashgear dives a little deeper into the technology, explaining that ‘Intelligent Lighting’ system uses visual light communication (VLC) to enable LED fixtures to trigger interactions on a user’s phone (much as Bluetooth LE beacons):
Where iBeacon relies on short-range Bluetooth connections between phone and store, Philips has opted for what’s called visual light communications (VLC). Effectively turning the LEDs on and off at such a high rate that they can be used for data transfer, but also so fast that the human eye doesn’t see that flickering, it allows for information to pass in one direction, from light to phone.
Why VLC is No BLE
But not so fast. While the concept at first glance sounds like a potentially more effective way to do indoor wayfinding and to send messages as your customer’s wander the aisles, there’s one major difference: the lights need to be, well, on.
Which means that they won’t work when your phone is in a pocket or purse.
While Bluetooth LE can suffer from signal degradation when your phone is in your pocket, it still works. This is what gives BLE its power: it can poll for beacons in the background, it uses very little battery power, and your phone doesn’t need to be off or in your hand for it to work.
Walk in a store and the phone in your pocket can gently chime or buzz, sending you a welcome message.
With the beacons themselves approaching commodity-like prices (we’ve seen beacons run as low as $8 each at volume) they’re as disposable as, well, light bulbs.
The Future is Hybrid
Having said that, the Philips technology is a reminder that the future won’t be owned by one technology alone:
- A fleet of beacons will often be deployed with a local mini hub which acts as a server and WiFi signal to facilitate updates.
- Beacons will communicate with smart devices like lighting systems or display terminals.
- And mobile apps will combine push messaging, social media integration and iBeacon frameworks to make them useful to users.
The Philips demo technology reminds me of a similar approach for the home, Nusocket, a company of which we’re a big fan. They’re developing intelligent light bulbs with plug-in modules for WiFi, Bluetooth LE and even video projection.
Nusocket provides an innovative example of how even the humble light bulb will have plug-and-play functionality on the Internet of Things.
Philip’s might have a great solution to wayfinding and other situations where you expect the user to be actively looking at their phone, but the use cases for Bluetooth LE are far broader and while the future may consist of hybrid solutions the invisible flicker of the lights above you probably aren’t one of them.