The lightbulbs at Boston's Museum of Science are talking to visitors.
The museum recently partnered with ByteLight, a Massachusetts-based company whose LED lightbulbs send location-specific information to customers' smartphones and tablets through proprietary signals that are like Morse Code, but invisible to the naked eye. In a phone conversation, ByteLight cofounder Dan Ryan said that the company "turns each lightbulb into a beacon—it flickers on and off too rapidly for the eye to see it."
These signals are then picked up by the camera on a user's device; a special app downloaded to a user's phone or tablet then decodes the transmission—during their visits to the Museum of Science, guests receive iPads that receive interactive games, real-time maps, offers, explanations of displays, and activities keyed to their in-museum location. The Museum's administrators also have access to a dashboard giving detailed floor traffic patterns and visitor engagement.
"The lights use LED pulses, faster than the human eye can see, and each light has a unique signature. Any device with a front-facing camera can use (ByteLight), and it's faster and more accurate than Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or proprietary beacon products," says Don Dodge, a design advocate at Google who recently joined ByteLight as an advisor.
Ryan and cofounder Aaron Ganick are both recent Boston University electrical engineering graduates. The company, which has recently begun courting the press after a long period in stealth mode, has raised $1.25 million in a seed round led by California's VantagePoint Capital Partners.
For individual customers and enterprise customers, ByteLight isn't cheap. The company's preorder page offers, at press time, packages ranging from $69 for two lightbulbs to $8,500 for 200 lightbulbs. Even the Boston Museum of Science is only using 20 ByteLight bulbs. ByteLight's bulbs screw into any normal socket and are currently being manufactured by Solais Lighting.
In 2013, indoor location-based technologies which send custom information to users' phones within buildings—and track them in the process—are expected to move past the infancy stage of indoor Google Maps and opt-in router pinging. The target market for this is big retailers, who are searching for the holy grail of counting how many customers are in each aisle and making sure they don't head for the other big box around the way.
The rub for ByteLight is that their technology, too, is opt-in. In order for users to interact with ByteLight, they first need to download an app. This is why the Museum of Science is giving visitors loaned iPads, and it's a potential challenge ByteLight and their future partners will have to deal with. If users do not have ByteLight's iOS or Android apps, these are simply cool-looking (and very expensive) lightbulbs.
With this in mind, ByteLight's immediate need is to develop novel uses for their lightbulbs which will attract new customers. The company has released an open API and, in place of a standard software developer kit, is offering developers a simple web editor for app development.
In addition to Bytelight's $1.25 million in funding, the company is also raising funds via pre-orders on their website. As of January 21, 2013, ByteLight has raised $28,280 from 114 backers.