Shining a Light: ByteLight Goes After ‘Holy Grail’ of Indoor LBS

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Aaron Ganick, CEO and co-founder of Cambridge Mass-bassed ByteLight, is pretty excited. He and CTO Dan Ryan recently announced a raise of $1.25 million and feels he’s hot on the trail of location’s “holy grail” — indoor micro-location. But we’re not talking about old-school WiFi triangulation or some sort of GPS. This is much heavier — this is about light.

These guys are adding chips into LED bulbs then inviting your cell phone’s camera to breathe in the location, allowing you to find exactly what you need, be targeted with contextual ads (aren’t there always ads?), and perhaps be followed about (they say that part’s not in the plan). Google may have made Americans aware of outdoor “location” with the acquisition of Where2 and Keyhole some eight years ago, but ByteLight might be set to do the same for the indoors.

Street Fight sat down with Ganick after the dust had settled on their recent funding announcement to find out whether his product could change hyperlocal commerce — or if it was just technology searching for a problem.

So, location from light? It sounds either completely obvious or a joke. Assuming it’s the former, how does it work?
Light-emitting Diode lights (LED’s) are digital devices that switch on and off really fast.  The switching is so fast that it’s imperceptible to the human eye.  To turn an ordinary LED light into a ByteLight, we license to manufacturers one of our circuit designs that enables the LED light to emit the ByteLight signal. In this sense we draw the “Intel Inside,” analogy and aim to have a ByteLight inside every LED light. On the receiver side, we’ve developed technology that uses the front/rear facing cameras on mobile devices to pick up the signal.

Does it only work indoors?
Theoretically it could work with outdoor LED lighting but we are focused on the indoor world, where GPS does not work well.

Is it true that the more lights overhead the better? Is there triangulation?
We like to use the “GPS analogy” because while the technologies are different, they work in a completely analogous way.  With GPS, satellites above the earth broadcast signals that are picked up by mobile devices outdoors.  The mobile device then triangulates the position.  With ByteLight, instead of using satellites to triangulate the position of a mobile device, light sources are used.

Exactly what are you selling — technology or hardware?
We work with our lighting partners to integrate our technology into their bulbs — making them “ByteLight enabled.”  Our business is focused primarily on the software side — where we provide APIs, mapping tools, and a content management system to allow third-party developers to use ByteLight within their applications.

CEO Aaron Ganick


Have you made inroads with LED light manufacturers?
Yes. While I can’t speak to specifics (given we’re under NDA), I can tell you that we are actively involved in discussions with several innovative lighting partners. One of the reasons we chose VPCP as lead investor is their deep expertise in the lighting world and we intend to leverage that.

How much more expensive does you tech make the hardware?
The addition is near zero-cost.

Street Fight covers the business of hyperlocal — how do you imagine changing our business, if all goes wildly well?
Traditionally, when people talk about “local” they refer to using existing GPS/WiFi technology that is limited to the outdoors or the brick and mortar storefronts of businesses.  The typical use case is: you walk by a Starbucks and receive an offer for a free latte.  ByteLight is extending that exact concept to the indoor world and opening up these storefronts. For example, when you’re walking down Aisle 5 in front of the coffee beans in the future, you’ll be able to receive a real-time offer based on the product right next to you.

Lots of companies have tried to crack indoor location, including Google. Why is Bytelight’s concept better than the rest?
Many companies are using technologies like WiFi for geo-fencing — which determines whether or not a user is within a building.  But if you’re trying to figure out exactly where you are within a building, WiFi and many of the other solutions don’t really deliver.  To enable the next generation of indoor location-aware services, we need to do better with precisely determining real-time location.  This is where ByteLight really shines.  We can not only tell you whether you’re in a building, we can tell you your exact location within, to an accuracy of less than one meter.

So the radius for targeting is so small that it can make a meaningful difference to commerce?
Yes – we’re accurate to  less than one meter, which is unprecedented in terms of indoor location tech.

Imagine leaving location based messages in specific physical locations.  Future visitors to the same location could scroll through a tapestry of thoughts for previous visitors.

Who are your target customers and how will they use the technology?
Retail is an obvious target market.  We can make it easy for shoppers to find products and gather information.  Museums are a great use case as well, allowing us to augment the traditional “audio tour guide” model.  Other targets include convention centers/trade shows and the industrial industry.

Can you talk about any discussions with retailers?
Unfortunately not at the moment as those current discussions are under NDA. We do have live pilots currently and will have more to share soon.

During your development you must have thought of terrific or wild possibilities of the technology. What are some of those?
Too many to mention!  One interesting idea is the concept of overlaying digital content onto physical spaces.  Imagine leaving location-based messages in specific physical locations.  Future visitors to the same location could scroll through a tapestry of thoughts left by previous visitors.

What excites you most about ByteLight?
The most exciting thing about ByteLight is the unknown.  In the same way that no-one predicted “check-ins” when GPS became widespread on consumer devices, there’s no predicting what applications people will be building on top of ByteLight 5 years from now.

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column, which had been on hiatus since December, is now again appearing regularly on Street Fight. Follow him at @wideopensea.

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