GPS Indoors: ByteLight's Indoor Positioning System at Boston's Museum of Science

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Who: Dan Ryan and Aaron Ganick, the founders of ByteLight, a Cambridge, Massachusetts start-up. What: A positioning system using LED lights enabled with the capacity to broadcast location data in indoor spaces, in real time, and without WiFi or GPS. Little satellites, if you will.

When: ByteLight tours are offered at the Museum Saturday-Thursday, 10am-4:45pm and Friday, 10am-7:30pm.

Where: the Cahners ComputerPlace at the Museum of Science in Boston

Why: The LED positioning system benefits both museum participants and the museum administration. Firstly, the positioning system can detect a museum goer’s location in the museum and provide additional information on the object, exhibition, or installation the individual is viewing. Secondly, it allows museum administration to access valuable data about patron traffic and engagement with exhibitions-information staff may previously not had been able to collect or collect with such ease. It is a rather tempting technology because for most venues, the infrastructure for ByteLight bulbs already exists. If you have light bulb sockets, then you can have ByteLight. The question is not how to implement  the ByteLight bulbs, but why.

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How: See that flash? No? I didn’t either. Within each LED light bulb is a chip that flashes a pattern, pulsing too fast for humans to see but the perfect speed for the camera lens of a mobile device. Users must download the ByteLight application to their mobile device in order to access the technology. The mobile device, such as the iPad in the case of the Museum of Science, picks up the light signal transmitted by the LED bulb and tracks the user’s location with incredible accuracy and speed- within one meter and in less than a second, according to the company. In the ComputerPlace, visitors can borrow one of the Museum’s programed iPads to take a guided tour of the space, to seek additional information on the objects before them, and to discover other installations in the museum of interest. With this new technology, visitors can explore the space they occupy with a heightened sense of place and in greater detail.

A smartphone/tablet device demodulates the visible light signal via the existing cameras. The mobile device then consults a cloud-based server, which maintains an association of light identifiers, content, and physical location. -Bytelight.com

As with any new technology, there are a number of issues museum administrators must address before moving forward and implementing ByteLight. Consider these possible obstacles before pre-ordering your Bytelight Bulbs:

1) Even though this is an "opt-in" technology, how will museum visitors react to the “tracking” feature of the bulbs? Their concerns may include but are not limited to:

Why do you need to know my whereabouts in the museum?

To whom are you selling the data?

Am I being audited by the IRS?

Am I the newest contestant on the Amazing Race?

2) The light signals emitted from the LED bulb will not reach a mobile device located in a visitor's purse, pocket, diaper bag, backpack (oops here comes security, you almost made it through the museum without storing that bag in a locker).

3) There is no doubt this is a game-changing technology, but does it fit with the museum’s aims, culture, needs, resources, and goals for the visitor's experience? Will the need for a mobile device in order to access this technology exclude certain patrons?

If these are not concerns, then become a ByteLight backer! ByteLight is currently campaigning. As of today, February 6th, the campaign has 161 backers, 8 days left, and $65,407 to go. The public can pre-order packages of various price levels ranging from a nifty ByteLight t-shirt for $29 to 200 ByteLight light bulbs, the iOS and Android mobile app, and access to the online editor for custom plugins, all for $8,500 (don’t worry, there are other two and three-digit price packages as well).

[embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Z3EnHi591Hs#![/embed]

Dan Ryan, co-founder, writes, “What is exciting about the potential we’re seeing with indoor technology is around engagement.  I think there’s something very interesting about delivering highly relevant digital content that’s targeted to your location. Location based gaming, social networking, photos, and augmented reality are all spaces that can benefit from better contextual awareness enabled by ByteLight.”

While ByteLight certainly offers museum visitors and administrators greater access to information and a more accurate alternative to other location-based services (WiFi and QR codes), it comes at both a hefty price and risk. Is the museum setting a promising environment for this technology? Or should it be marketed toward supermarkets and retailers like Target? Do visitors need digital navigation assistance while wandering through galleries? Have similar systems for providing location-specific information proved successful in the museum setting (think QR codes)? Will museum visitors be motivated to download the mobile application if they have an iOS or Android device? While it is clear museum administrators will benefit from increased data on visitor behavior and traffic, the advantage for museum goers may require a closer look. If you have the chance to test drive the program at the Museum of Science in Boston, be sure to share your opinion with us on Facebook, Twitter, or below.