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Visible Light Communication Shows the Way

Key Points
  • VLC technology integrates light and data to provide indoor positioning and location tracking.
  • LED fixtures communicate with mobile devices to enhance customer experience and increase sales.
  • The VLC market is still emerging, although a number of products are being commercialized.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is gaining momentum. Enabled devices that can communicate with each other and share information are driving the market. In addition to lower energy consumption, IoT is delivering additional benefits, such as improved customer service and more flexible lighting systems. Visual light communication (VLC) is a growing part of this trend.

Guiding lights

For retail and other types of facilities, VLC integrates light and data to provide indoor positioning and location tracking from a digital ceiling. VLC is a light-based alternative to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth beacon technology. As such, it's commonly known as 'Li-Fi'.

With VLC technology, every LED fixture pulses its light at a high frequency not discernible to the human eye, but which can be picked up by a mobile device camera with the appropriately installed software. This technology is much more accurate and accessible than GPS positioning, especially indoors.

vlc 

Unlike low-energy Bluetooth beacons, VLC requires users to hold their mobile devices so they're exposed to the ceiling lighting. However, VLC avoids the need to purchase and distribute multiple Bluetooth beacons around the store. Most VLC suppliers offer a hybrid product augmented by Bluetooth wireless.

The VLC mobile device application can guide customers to the products they want to buy and will also push applicable coupons or sales information to phones to generate more revenue. VLC technology can track retail customers holding their mobile device by location within a store. Customer tracking data can be mined to optimize product placement. Other applications for VLC technology include:

  • Museums for pushing display information to tablets
  • Hospitals for patient and asset tracking
  • Transportation depots (train stations and airports) for wayfinding

A bright future?

The market for VLC is still emerging, but a number of competitors are in the early stages of commercialization:

  • Acuity Brands purchased ByteLight to commercialize its VLC offering and has conducted testing at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.
  • Lumicast™ technology from Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. is packaged with state-of-the-art drivers from eldoLED for VLC applications. 
  • Philips Lighting and GE Lighting have similar products, with GE leveraging Qualcomm technology.
  • PureLiFi (Edinburgh, Scotland) recently raised $2.5 million in venture funding to commercialize its version of VLC.

Retailer Target is testing VLC technology in around 100 stores. Philips has installed VLC at the Dutch National Museum for Science and Medicine. A GE Lighting retail customer survey indicated that 80 percent of respondents trust retailers to handle their location data in a safe and secure manner.

Despite these positive signs, challenges remain to widespread commercialization, according to a recent study. These include integration of VLC with existing communications standards, as well as interference from ambient light sources and between different VLC devices.

Standardization of VLC technology would help to overcome these challenges. To that end, IEEE developed Standard 802.15.7 Short-Range Wireless Optical Communication Using Visible Light. This standard provides a benchmark for the development of new products and applications.

With increasing standardization and continued advances in solid-state lighting technology, the market for VLC applications may continue to develop and grow.

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