Using Light As A Data Stream For Delivering Hyper-Relevant Information [Future of Light]

Using Light As A Data Stream For Delivering Hyper-Relevant Information [Future of Light]

Innovators are exploring how light can be used to quickly transfer information in stores and other environments.

  • 29 september 2013

Imagine the bulbs or fixtures around you acting a potential data source, transferring information you need just through light. What new information could they provide and what experiences could they offer to people? Speaking about its potential during his TED talkProfessor Harald Haas, Chair of Mobile Communications at the University of Edinburgh, explains, “Look around. Everywhere. Look at your smart phone. It has a flashlight, an LED flashlight. These are potential sources for high-speed data transmission.”

In a trend we are calling Speed of Light, PSFK Labs looks into the ways light is being used to transfer and communicate information. Whether by beaming hyper-relevant data and information to phones in a retail environment, or converting real-time data streams into intuitive and engaging visual information for public display, these lighting solutions help inject relevant information into a person’s surroundings, providing an added layer of context. “The idea that you have real‐time information all the time beamed towards you is probably the future,” states Winka Dubbledam, Principal of ArchiTectonics during a recent conversation with PSFK Labs.

2-emart smartphone

Having real-time information beamed directly to your smartphone is already a reality  at Korean supermarket chain Emart. The retailer is using smartphones and LED bulbs to guide shoppers around their stores and lead them to discounts. Dubbed ‘Emart Sale Navigation‘, the supermarket is using special lighting to send information to shoppers’ smartphones. Shoppers downloading the Emart app on their Android phone are guided around the aisles by dedicated indoor maps, and when they pass an area where there’s a discount coupon available, a notification will pop up on their smartphone’s screen.

During our interview, Ben Wilson, co-founder of Wilson Brothers Design Co., tells us, “If you can give more information to your consumer they can leave the store with more than just the purchase they buy. If in some way you can track their purchasing, give them a special offer, or get them to come back in then obviously that’s a very, very powerful tool.”


In another example of this trend, researchers at the National Taipei University of Technology in China have created a visible light communication system made out of everyday laser pointers to transfer data with lower error rates than Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The engineers wired red and green laser pointers with 500Mbps data streams, which when pointed at photodiode receptors, amplified and then multiplexed signals to create a 1Gbps data transfer.

Unlike other light transfer methodologies, which use ordinary LED light to transmit data, the coherence of laser light improves accuracy. This process transmits bits using the part of the spectrum humans can see, which doesn’t pass through most physical barriers or interfere with other communications systems, making it an attractive option where radio-based wireless transmissions would be dangerous or prohibited for security reasons in locations like hospitals, airplanes and government offices.

Examples like Emart Sales Navigation and the laser pointer show how light can be used to communicate location-specific information to people where and when they need it. We may expect to see bus stations and other transportation hubs beaming useful information like scheduling to a rider’s phone. In a retail setting lighting could transmit suggestions like recipes and complementary accessories to shopper’s mobile phones based on products being handled.

These examples also fall under a larger theme we are calling Enlightened Communication, which explores solutions that investigate the way light can be used as a communication tool, either visually conveying information through color, design and frequency or as a medium for transmitting data over distances.

The Future of Light series explores light’s potential to improve lives, build communities, and connect people in new and meaningful ways. Brought to you in partnership with Philips Lighting, a full report is available as an iOS and Android app or as a downloadable PDF.


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