LEDs light the way for retail networks

Stores may use fast-flashing lights to send data to customers and analyze shopping patterns

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Visible Light Communications UCaaS

A new twist on networking technology could transform store light fixtures into veritable beacons for customers and retailers. Visible-light communication (VLC) uses imperceptibly fast flashes from LED lights to send and receive data at up to 1 Gbps. According to IT analysis firm ABI Research, retailers could soon adopt VLC to send customers product information, pinpoint their location and analyze how people make their way through stores.

Although its abbreviation matches the name of a modern multimedia player, visible light communication’s history reaches back to 1880, when Alexander Graham Bell used the technology for his photophone. Recently, various startups and researchers have toyed with the concept for data connectivity. It’s gaining traction. One classroom in Britain now sports a VLC-enabled “li-fi” network for reliable web service.

ABI senior analyst Patrick Connolly explains that in the near future, retailers may be able to modify their LED fixtures for VLC location systems. These networks would connect to smartphone cameras, enabling the store to send shoppers details about nearby products, upcoming promotions and other information. VLC might also give retail managers the power to track clients’ locations as people move about the aisles, affording storeowners insight into customer traffic and shopping patterns.

VLC isn’t the only location solution. Connolly lists Apple’s new iBeacon technology and ultrasound networks among the alternatives. But VLC has a few advantages. It’s relatively inexpensive, since it uses existing infrastructure (light fixtures and smartphone cameras). And it’s accurate to within less than a metre. The VLC market is heating up. Bytelight, OLEDCOMM and other new firms offer VLC networking, paving the way for VLC location systems.

VLC’s Achilles’ heel: the technology’s reliance on line of sight. “It would require the customer to walk around with their smartphone out at all times,” Connolly says. “This is why LED technology is having a hard time getting off the ground.”

But the line-of-sight problem could prove to be a benefit, especially with respect to improving customers’ opinions about tracking systems. Today, many consumers bristle at the idea that they might be tracked, even if tracking gives them a better shopping experience. While privacy advocates say companies should tell customers they’re being watched, sometimes disclosure isn’t enough. Recall Nordstrom’s case. The fashion retailer posted signs informing shoppers of its new location-identification system; nonetheless, customers were spooked and the company shut the system off.

With VLC, shoppers would have to hold their phones up to connect to the LED network, so only customers who actually want to connect would link to the system. It’s literally a brilliant opt-in mechanism.

Although it’s too soon to say VLC is the next bright idea for retail infrastructure, technology decision makers should follow its development. Connolly recommends paying attention to li-fi startups including Bytelight, OLEDCOMM and pureLiFi. Qualcomm, Casio and IBM have conducted R&D in this realm, too. “While it may take these companies a year or two to come to market with a solution, we can expect to see some

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developments here,” he says.

Learn more about what’s in store with technology by looking at Multichannel Retailing Key Initiative Overview, including research from Gartner.

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