Acuity, Microsoft to jointly show lighting-based IoT services for retail trade at New York confab

Jan. 14, 2016
Indoor positioning using LEDs can help stores engage and sell to brick-and-mortar customers as if they were online.

Indoor positioning using LEDs can help stores engage and sell to brick-and-mortar customers as if they were online.

At first glance it looks like an ordinary announcement: A technology company is teaming with Microsoft to help industry collect, analyze, and use data in a manner that optimizes sales.

Only this time, the partner is not some dyed-in-the-wool technology name likeCisco, Verizon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, SAP, Siemens, or Teradata.

Rather, Microsoft’s latest partner in arms is an LED lighting vendor, Acuity Brands.

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In a move underscoring that the IT and lighting world are in full-swing convergence, Acuity announced that it will show its LED-based indoor positioning technology at Microsoft’s Retail Industry Group booth at the National Retail Federation’s annual convention and exhibition next week in New York.

Acuity offers technology that uses LED ceiling lights to target shoppers’ smartphones with in-store navigation and with promotions tailored to customers who opt in, typically via a loyalty app, as can be seen in the nearby illustration. For example, the lights might recognize that a shopper who recently purchased pasta has just walked in the store, and then ping that person with an electronic discount coupon for sauces, along with a map showing the precise location in the store.

Data about the products and purchases travel to and from Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing system, helping the retailer analyze both individual and general trends. Retailers use that information to further set prices, establish sales campaigns, and engage individual shoppers. The system mimics the online shopping experience in the brick-and-mortar world, and helps make lighting a key node in the fledgling Internet of Things (IoT).

“Light-based indoor positioning is proving to be, through millions of square feet and hundreds of thousands of installed beacons, the most viable and accurate technology platform to bridge in-store and online shopping and enhance the customer experience,” said Steve Lydecker, Acuity’s senior vice president of applied integrated solutions. “This includes sending promotions or suggested accessories to shoppers’ mobile devices as well as helping them find items, and get assistance quickly.”

Acuity is offering what it now calls “ByteLight Services” based on technology it acquired when it purchased patents and other intellectual property from Boston area startup ByteLight last April. The new “services” moniker suggests that lighting’s revenue model is shifting toward services and away from products. Acuity and other lighting companies could, for instance, start to charge retailers for data analytics rooted in the intelligent LED lighting systems.

In announcing the NRF display with Microsoft, Acuity did not drill into the specific indoor tracking technologies it will deploy at the show. It has previously referred to ByteLight’s “visible light communication” (VLC) that encodes data in the invisible flickering wavelengths of LED ceiling lights. An LED luminaire above, say, the olives, would send information about the olives to the pasta customer. ByteLight is also tapping low energy Bluetooth, also known as BLE. Acuity recently said it is embedding both VLC and BLE in LED luminaires for the retail industry.

“Retailers are on a quest for innovative ways to connect with customers, and offering personalized marketing through mobile devices offers an opportunity to enhance the shopper experience by increasing promotion redemption rates and nurturing a deeper level of customer engagement,” said Marty Ramos, CTO of retail, consumer products and services at Microsoft. “Innovations such as ByteLight Services, powered by our Azure cloud services solution, enable retailers to unlock the power of their data for in-store personalized marketing with insights that once only online retailers could capture.”

Retailers known to be deploying lighting-based indoor positioning include Target in the US, as reported by our partners at Lux Review, and Carrefour in France. Carrefour is using VLC technology from Philips. Target is trialing both VLC and Bluetooth, but it has not publicly identified its provider.

GE has also said it is running two VLC pilots in the US and two in Europe, where one is believed to be ASDA, the UK arm of Walmart Stores. GE was working with ByteLight technology prior to Acuity’s acquisition of certain ByteLight assets. It’s not clear how the Acuity acquisition affects GE’s VLC trials.

The move to intelligent lighting is giving rise to partnerships between IT and lighting companies such as Microsoft and Acuity, although the two sides in general are also competing for a slice of a potentially enormous pie.

In other recent cross-pollinating activity, Philips and Cisco have joined forces to provide Power over Ethernet-based lighting. And startup Gooee, a hybrid technology/lighting company, is offering firmware that LED luminaire manufacturers can embed to support smart lighting. Gooee is particularly focused on lighting manufacturers targeting the retail trade, to help retailers engage customers and scrub and analyze data.

Gooee has signed up several luminaire makers including Aurora, whose founder Andrew Johnson also founded and funded Gooee.

MARK HALPERis a contributing editor for LEDs Magazine, and an energy, technology, and business journalist ([email protected]).