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Science in Museums: Cambridge Startup ByteLight Brings LED-based Navigation to the Museum of Science

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on January 23, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Catherine Sigmond

The next big tech innovation for museums could be as simple as changing a light bulb. Or a few thousand of them.

But how, you might ask? Enter ByteLight. The Cambridge-based startup has developed an indoor positioning system that uses LED (light-emitting diodes) lighting to help visitors navigate and explore indoor spaces in real-time.

Navigating the inside of a building on a mobile device has always been a tricky endeavor. Traditionally, GPS navigation relies on Wi-Fi to map your location. However, this presents problems when applied indoors. Not only is Wi-Fi expensive to maintain, but its location mapping is usually only accurate within a few feet. While this might not be a problem when you’re outside, it’s a different story when you’re inside of a building.

So the founders of ByteLight, Boston University grads Dan Ryan and Aaron Ganick, developed a more cost-effective and accurate solution using a simple piece of technology- an LED light bulb. The company has developed a way to enable LED lights that broadcast location data that is revolutionizing the way we interact with indoor spaces such as shopping malls, office buildings, airports, and of course, museums.

ByteLight’s technology is actually relatively simple. Every ByteLight enabled LED bulb contains a chip that flashes a light signal that can be picked up by an iPad camera. While the signal flashes at a rate too fast for human eyes to see, the technology allows your mobile device to track your location to within a meter of accuracy. And it does so in under a second.

But why is the ability to pinpoint your exact location appealing to museums? Well, since a ByteLight enabled device can distinguish whether you’re standing in front of one object or a different one that is only inches away, the potential for giving visitors access to extra interpretive content for an individual object or exhibit is huge.

Recently, ByteLight partnered with the Museum of Science, Boston, to install 25 of their unique LED light bulbs (produced by Solais Lighting) in the popular Cahners ComputerPlace. The installation marks the first public pilot project of the new technology, and is already gaining traction among both museum staff and visitors lucky enough to get a chance to test it out. Using specially programmed iPads provided by the museum, visitors touch a map to navigate the space and take a self-guided tour while extra interactive content based on whatever exhibit they’re standing in front of pops up as ByteLight tracks their position in real-time. So if you’re standing in front of the “Computer Build Bench” you might learn how assemble a computer, or if you’re anywhere near “Robot Park” you might get a chance to program a robot right on your screen.

The technology also lets visitors check their position on a map of the space, get directions in Cahners, and search for different interactive spots to explore. Museum staff can use ByteLight’s administrative features to track traffic patterns in the museum and consequently monitor visitor engagement with different exhibits.

And since the Museum of Science was already transitioning to LED lighting, ByteLight presented an inexpensive and highly accurate way to provide visitors with an enhanced wayfinding and learning experience.

The technology’s application in museums might seem boundless, but there are a few limitations. Just like outdoor GPS requires a line of sight between your device and a satellite, ByteLight will only work if there is an uninterrupted connection in order to receive the light signal. Put your device in your purse or pocket and it won’t work. For ByteLight, becoming commonplace depends on the widespread adoption of LED lighting. Though LED light bulbs save more energy over time, they remain more expensive than regular bulbs.

For now, the company isn’t making an app available for everyone to download. But last week Dan and Aaron announced a campaign to raise funds to make ByteLight available to the masses at an affordable price. In true Kickstarter fashion, the first 1,250 supporters who pre-order a set of bulbs will gain early access to the ByteLight application yet won’t be charged unless the funding goal is met. Recognizing their own limitations, the company is also opening up the technology to developers to create alternative uses for ByteLight that the founders haven’t thought of.

Museum professionals considering using ByteLight have some challenges to figure out as well. Extra content must remain supplementary- it needs to enhance the visitor experience, but not be essential to having a positive learning experience in the museum. You wouldn’t want a visitor who can’t pay to rent an iPad or doesn’t have their own device to use to feel like they’re missing out. And how do you deal with those visitors who might not like the idea that the museum is tracking their movements through their mobile device?

Challenges aside, ByteLight is certainly one of the coolest new technologies to emerge in quite a while. If you’re curious to see it in action you can head down to the Museum of Science and check it out for yourself. ByteLight illuminated tours are available Saturday-Thursday from 10:00am-4:45pm or on Fridays from 10:00am-7:30pm for those who request one of a limited number of iPads from Cahners ComputerPlace staff. Admission is $22 for adults, $20 for seniors (60+), and $19 for children (3-11).

For more information on ByteLight check out ByteBlog, or click to read about them in Wired and Forbes.

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