Shoppers, Look Up: The Store Is Winking At Your Phone

“Retailers have spent millions and millions of dollars on kiosks,” not to mention wireless infrastructure, says Dan Ryan, CEO of ByteLight. But his company is betting that the next-generation retail experience is through the mobile phone–with information delivered via hundreds of pulsing LED lights embedded in the ceiling of the store.

Shoppers, Look Up: The Store Is Winking At Your Phone

ByteLight’s smart LED lightbulbs flash hundreds of times per second, sending signals too fast for the human eye to see, but easy for a mobile phone camera to decode. Retailers are excited about the technology because they can use it to pinpoint a shopper’s location to within a meter and send offers, suggestions, and other data to customers in real time. We sat down with Dan Ryan, ByteLight’s founder and CEO, to hear his vision of the future of retail.


Online shopping is taking off, but how can retailers use technology to make their physical presence more engaging?

We have e-commerce and we have physical commerce. So how do we link these two things together? I think there’s incredible opportunity to connect the digital and the physical by leveraging mobile devices coupled with indoor location. The requirements for an indoor location system are: One, it can’t cost too much. You can’t have a venue spending millions of dollars on new infrastructure. Two, it needs to be accurate. Just knowing that you’re in the building is not enough. You really need that rich level of accuracy to enable engagement.

How does knowing a shopper’s location change the store experience for the customer?


I think mobile technology combined with location combined with personalization has the opportunity to bring retail back to its roots, a personalized shopping experience. In the beginning of retail, you walked to the local general store. Everybody knew your name and knew what you liked. When the big box model took over, that personal touch was lost. You were just another number that walked into a Target, a Walmart or any of those other stores. With knowledge of who the shopper is, what they like, and their location, there’s an opportunity to personalize that experience in the same way that it was personalized with the general store salesman 50 years ago.

What does that personalization look like to the end-user?

Our goal is to use indoor location to turn the mobile device into essentially a web browser for the physical world. You’ll walk into a retail store and the application itself will dynamically adjust its UI depending on your location. For example, I’m in the clothing section of the store. I have the retailer’s app. The entire app will change to focus on clothing. I’ll see mannequins. I’ll see accessories. I’ll also see stuff that’s been personalized to me. I walk up to a product I was looking at online and a retail can offer me a deal for that product. You can program the physical retail experience in the way that you can program the online experience today.


How does this help stores compete with online retailers?

I think something that could potentially be pretty interesting [is] this idea of the physical retailer just becoming a showroom just for themselves. The thing they’re defending against–and there’s actually a term for thi–is called “getting Amazoned.” Retail executives will actually throw that out in conversation. “We get Amazoned in our electronics. We get Amazoned in jewelry.” The problem today is that retailers don’t control the mobile experience in their stores. People are walking in with barcode scanning apps that go out to another retailer’s website. With location technology, you can deliver a compelling mobile application that the retailer controls. The idea is that you could walk up to a product, say it’s that Samsung TV. Say I want this. I can buy it right here on my phone. I know my location. I know what product I’m standing in front of, and then you can just ship that TV directly to my house via the retailer.

What is the greatest concern the CTOs you’ve talked to have when it comes to implementing new technologies in stores?

They don’t want to spend money on new Wi-Fi infrastructure. They don’t want to spend money putting ultrasonic beacons in their spaces. They’re looking for a way to leverage infrastructure that’s going to be there already. People assume that Wi-Fi is there in retail stores, that it’s going to continue to be there. But the movement is actually to remove the wireless infrastructure and then offload the traffic to the carrier network. These guys are always thinking, “how I can remove every single piece of infrastructure from my store?” The nice thing about the trend both on the associate side and the consumer side is that everyone’s buying smartphones. There’s no need to put specialized kiosks in your store. Retailers have spent millions and millions of dollars on kiosks. The future is going to be a kiosk in your hand.


Will it be fast?

You can do some interesting things with predictive and aggressive caching. Imagine you walk to the retail store and I have a sense of what offers are available in the store. I can just cache all that stuff on a device, and, as you’re walking around the retail store, you wouldn’t even need to hit server remotely. Then afterwards, when you’re gone, maybe I’ll upload the analytics from cache to a server so I can look at it later on. All the client-side interaction can all happen essentially in real time, which is a crucial advantage in a mobile environment. If you have any user who’s waiting more than a second for a piece of content, you’ve immediately lost them.

In your conversations with retailers, what have you discovered about their technology operations?


I’ve actually been surprised at how tech savvy, far thinking and visionary a lot of these companies are. It varies from company to company, but some of the conversations we’ve had with retail executives were shocking to me. You always think that they’re thinking five years behind, but they’re actually always thinking five years ahead. I was surprised.

How does your mobile platform fit in with stores’ existing technology and development teams?

Say you’re a retailer and you have your own mobile app. A lot of retail mobile apps today are not really imaginative. They’re usually just the ecommerce website on a smaller screen with lower battery life. The apps basically suck. With the location module powered by Bytelight, you could, for example, add location-based couponing directly into your existing mobile application. It’s one level abstracted from the core API.

What about third-party developers who want to tie into your technology?


Our goal as a company is to identify those first two or three critical applications that we want to deploy in the market, get the infrastructure out there, and then open up the middleware platform for more third-party application development.

Backtrack by reading our series about how Software Is Changing The Future Of Retail

[Image by Craig Moulding on Flickr.]

About the author

Gabe Stein is a contributor to Co.Labs specializing in computer science history, publishing and futurology. Prior to becoming a contributor, Gabe was the resident "News Hacker" and an editor for Co.Labs.