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Qualcomm partners with GE to bring GPS indoors through lights

Using GPS to navigate from place to place, find local stores and compare driving, walking or biking routes has become so commonplace it’s hard to imagine life without the technology.

But the ability to do this is confined to the outdoors, ending as soon as the phone or GPS device enters a building and is no longer able to pick up the satellite signals that relay exact location.

That’s about to change thanks to a Qualcomm Atheros partnership with GE Lighting that will bring positioning technology indoors via LED lights.

“Each light is sending out a unique signal like a satellite sends out a unique signal, so when you opt in and download the software into a cellphone, the cellphone will read the light fixtures to calculate your position within roughly 2 to 5 centimeters of accuracy,” said Jeff Bisberg, global general manager of indoor location for GE.

In addition to the X and Y coordinates that satellites relay, these lights will add a Z coordinate, letting the software know your elevation as well, to detect which floor of a building you’re on.

Bisberg said Atheros, which is developing the operating system for this positioning technology while GE is handling the hardware and software components, has been working on the concept for a while.

But, he said, it wasn’t until about two years ago that the two teams began collaborating, and within the last year that things ramped up, with an official announcement made the first week of May.

“Enabling retailers to provide shoppers contextual services, with pinpoint accuracy, will introduce a new level of personalization and customer service,” Cormac Conroy, vice president of product management at Qualcomm Technologies, said in a statement. “We look forward to supporting GE lighting to commercialize this technology and to make possible a new level of indoor location and context experience.”

The technology is undergoing basic trials now, with plans for a larger deployment with added functionality in 2016.

It’s hard to predict all possible future uses, but Bisberg said GE sees four main categories of early-adoption use: educational purposes in museums, where your phone vibrates as you walk by a certain picture or exhibit, offering additional information about the piece; in-store use to offer information on different brands or types of items, such as toothpaste, and then provide coupons if applicable; navigating within buildings, say from your location in the airport to the nearest bathroom or your terminal; and optimizing the store experience by allowing employees to see that a customer has been in the electronics section for three minutes and might need help or advice, and allow for virtual assistance if staff members aren’t available.

“Using the proximity and context of where you’re standing is highly important in providing information in a nonintrusive, friendly way that we think is going to change the indoor experience in positive ways in the near future,” he said.

Bisberg said there are a few reasons why lights make sense as opposed to other indoor infrastructure mainstays.

First, they’re one of the few things prewired into buildings when they’re designed, so there is power available at every single light fixture. Light fixtures are also off the floor, which reduces the public’s interaction with it, which is optimal. LED lights are also low maintenance and don’t require batteries to be changed or need much upkeep.

From GE’s perspective, this is a third wave of value proposition for lights: their core use of providing lighting, followed by LEDs reduction in maintenance and energy use, and now lights moving into the realm of adding value for consumers and retailers.

While all the lights in a store or museum might have these location sensors, consumers would have to opt in by downloading an app — no one who doesn’t want to use this technology would have to interact with it at all.

As for a price point for these indoor positioning LEDs, Bisberg said it’s simply too early to tell as the collaborators are experimenting with several different models.

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