Target gives the go-ahead on IoT lights at half its stores

Oct. 9, 2017
At last the retailer and Acuity will roll out the world's largest lighting-based indoor positioning system, using Bluetooth but not VLC.

At last the retailer and Acuity will roll out the world's largest lighting-based indoor positioning system, using Bluetooth but not VLC.

The world's largest known deployment of lighting-based indoor positioning is finally going full speed ahead, as US retail giant Target plans to roll out a customer engagement system in nearly half of its 1800 stores by Christmas.

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Using Bluetooth chips embedded in LED ceiling lights from Acuity Brands, Target will send signals to shoppers' phones. Drawing on a Target app, the phones will display an interactive map that guides individuals around the aisles, helping them find specific items and providing information about discounts.

“This promises to make it easier than ever to find what you’re looking for, so you can fill up your cart and get on your way,” Target chief information and digital officer Mike McNamara said in a video blog on Target's website. “It'll even tell you if the product's on sale, so you never have to miss out on an opportunity to save.” He likened the system to driving a car using GPS.

Target has been piloting indoor positioning (IPS) for several years, as LEDs Magazine's sister publication Lux first reported exclusively back in April 2015.

But like many early indoor positioning implementations, Target has held back from full-on deployment. As of two years ago, it was trialing the technology in about 100 stores.

At the time, it was kicking the tires on different methods, including both Bluetooth wireless radio as well as something called visible light communication (VLC), which sends signals to phones via LED-generated lightwaves, rather than via radio frequencies.

The lights will not only illuminate, but will also help guide you and deliver information to your phone at hundreds of Target stores. (Photo credit: Target.)

In a decision that will disappoint VLC advocates and which some observers will find surprising, the retail chain said it has decided to use Bluetooth but not VLC, a Target spokesperson told LEDs. He declined to elaborate, and Acuity would not comment.

It could be that improvements related to the recent ratification of a Bluetooth mesh standard convinced Target to choose the radio method. The mesh standard prescribes a common method for allowing Bluetooth chips to hand off instructions to each other, effectively extending the range of Bluetooth far beyond the 30 ft that it typically provides.

Bluetooth's disadvantage compared to VLC is that it is not as accurate — it can pinpoint a product's location on a shelf to within 2–3m (about 6.5–10 ft) versus VLC's 30 cm, which is less than a foot.

But one of VLC's drawbacks is that it requires a user's phone to constantly point to the ceiling lighting, because lightwaves have to hit the phone's camera in order for the technology to work. In contrast, Bluetooth does not require line of sight for such Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

Another downside for VLC in indoor positioning projects is that lights have to always be on. That means VLC would often not function in a store or mall with plenty of natural light — say, one with a glass atrium and skylights — unless the lights were switched on when they don't have to be for traditional illumination purposes. That's one reason why Philips Lighting, a pioneering VLC enthusiast, is now using Bluetooth as well, and in some instances combining the two technologies.

Target is embedding Bluetooth transmitters in Acuity ceiling lights, the Target spokesperson said, noting that the system will only work with iPhones at first. Android support will follow later.

The rollout at Target could help boost the lighting-based IPS concept and encourage further takeup of the IoT scheme, which has been characterized by one-off implementations in single or small groups of stores — such as at an EDEKA Paschmann store in Dusseldorf and E.Leclerc store in Langon, France; at the Dubai-based retail chain aswaaq; a Carrefour store in Lille, France, and elsewhere.

As of last July, Acuity itself claimed to have deployed lighting-based indoor positioning in over 50 million ft2 of retail space, although it has been reticent about naming its users. Its trials are believed to include Walmart.

Acuity has been steadily building its indoor positioning arsenal. It picked up VLC technology when it acquired VLC specialist company ByteLight in 2015. ByteLight had been working with GE prior to the acquisition. Acuity also uses VLC technology from Qualcomm called Lumicast, and, as LEDs has reported, Acuity has used the former ByteLight team to help integrate VLC and Bluetooth into one system (if that combination exists in the Bluetooth-led system at Target, no one is saying).

Last spring, it launched a systems integration program inviting partners to help develop indoor positioning and other indoor IoT programs such as asset tracking. It also launched a Bluetooth system that tracks shopping carts around stores in order to provide retailers with information on floor traffic and also to keep tabs on the carts' whereabouts.

It's all part of push by lighting companies to morph more into information technology companies, and to develop offerings that collect data, which can then be monetized in many ways, such as by offering promotions and discounts to the IoT application users.

There is the question of whether shoppers even want guidance on their phones as they navigate around physical-world stores.

Another issue that has possibly held back indoor positioning schemes is that they raise security and privacy concerns. With that in mind, Philips Lighting left personalization out of a recent implementation at the four-story Media Markt computer and electronics shop in Eindhoven.

The lighting industry also faces another challenge: Even as more large end users such as Target decide to deploy, those users might buy from a more conventional IT supplier rather than from a lighting company.

For example, Barclays plc has deployed sensors to help monitor office usage at its investment banking headquarters in London, without embedding those sensors in lights.

For reasons like that, lighting company Osram now has a business selling Bluetooth chips, such as when it provided a retail chain with Bluetooth hardware to connect to non-Osram lights for a system at Guess and Marc O'Polo fashion shops in Switzerland.

Likewise, smart lighting specialist Gooee last year teamed with Israel's PointGrab Ltd. to tie that company's CogniPoint wall-mounted sensors into the Gooee cloud data analysis system.

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

About the Author

Mark Halper | Contributing Editor, LEDs Magazine, and Business/Energy/Technology Journalist

Mark Halper is a freelance business, technology, and science journalist who covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles. Halper has written from locations around the world for TIME Magazine, Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, CBS, Wired, and many others. A US citizen living in Britain, he cut his journalism teeth cutting and pasting copy for an English-language daily newspaper in Mexico City. Halper has a BA in history from Cornell University.