Philips Creates Shopping Assistant with LEDs and Smart Phone

Photo: Getty Images

If you're like me, fumbling around the supermarket looking for obscure items is a pretty common—and frustrating—occurrence. Lighting giant Philips has developed a solution: smart lights.

The company yesterday introduced a system that connects in-store LED lights with consumers' smart phones. Using a downloadable app, people will be able to locate items on their shopping lists or get coupons as they pass products on the aisles. Retailers can send targeted information such as recipes and coupons to consumers based on their precise location within stores, while gaining benefits of energy-efficient LED lighting, says Philips.

“The beauty of the system is that retailers do not have to invest in additional infrastructure to house, power and support location beacons for indoor positioning. The light fixtures themselves can communicate this information by virtue of their presence everywhere in the store," said Philips Lighting's Gerben van der Lugt in a statement.

The company is demonstrating the retail lighting system at the EuroShop retail trade show in Düsseldorf, Germany, this week. Philips is already testing it with an undisclosed number of retailers.

The system uses Visual Light Communications (VLC) to talk with consumers' smartphones. Unlike the wireless protocols Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Zigbee, which use radio waves to send information, VLC relies on the store lights to transmit data to the camera on a smart phone in fast pulses. The lights blink at frequencies that are undetectable by people, according to LEDs Magazine

There are already a number of other efforts aimed at adding communications and sensors to LED light fixtures. Last year, researchers at the University of Strathclyde in the U.K. demonstrated LED lights with optical communications, which they call “Li-Fi.” That setup was able to operate at gigabit-per-second speeds, according to a BBC article.

Startup ByteLight has developed a system similar to Philips’ retail lighting network. It also uses light pulses to communicate with consumers’ smart phones in stores. Other companies, such as Silver Spring Networks, in Redwood City, Calif., have developed street lights with sensors and radios that allow city managers to remotely monitor traffic density or air quality.

The New York Times today reported that the airport in Newark, New Jersey, is operating smart lighting systems with cameras that make it easier to monitor the facility. The lights allow personnel to spot long lines, look at license plate numbers, and potentially send alerts about suspicious activity.

But these smart lighting systems, while powerful, are raising concerns about privacy and whether new policies are needed to address this emerging technology. “There are some people in the commercial space who say, ‘Oh, big data—well, let’s collect everything, keep it around forever, we’ll pay for somebody to think about security later,’ ” Justin Brookman from the Center for Democracy and Technology told the Times.

In the case of Philips' retail lighting application, consumers would have to download an app, which indicates their willingness to have their movements tracked. But as lighting and other everyday items such as thermostats and streetlights are equipped with sensors and wireless networking, it raises new questions about what is an acceptable amount of monitoring and data collection.

Businesses have a good economic incentive to network their lighting. By connecting lights with occupancy and daylight sensors to building management systems, they can greatly reduce electricity use—and energy costs—in commercial or institutional buildings.

Regardless of whether retailers adopt Philips’ smart lighting system, one thing is clear: the mobile phone in your purse or pocket is just one of a growing number of connected, smart devices in our daily environment.

Graphic illustration: Philips

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