Sensity lights illuminate the entrances at Brea Mall in Brea, Calif. Mall owner Simon Properties has begun adding cameras to analyze parking lot traffic. (Emily Berl)
Among the many promises of the Internet of Things — a network of Wi-Fi-connected devices and equipment managed with smartphones — is the automation of everyday life, whether finding a parking space or discovering a discounted blouse at the mall or lighting the streets when day shifts to dusk.
But public lighting, it turns out, offers more than illumination.
Using a combination of LEDs and big data technology, public lighting is the potential backbone of a system that could use billions of fixtures to collect data about traffic congestion at an intersection or a consumer walking down the cereal aisle, to name just a couple of applications.
Sensity Systems, a small start-up that builds and manages smart-lighting networks, announced Monday that it has attracted money and partnerships from a group of major businesses, including Simon Property Group, the leading mall developer; General Electric; Cisco; and Acuity Brands, a leading maker of LED lighting.
“We’re obviously excited about the intelligent environment future — that’s really what our lighting business is becoming: It’s morphing from a hardware to a software business,” said Beth Comstock, who leads the business innovations unit at GE, which is seeking to sell its appliance division to Electrolux. “What gets us excited is, frankly, light is more than you can see.”
The investments — totaling about $36 million, roughly half of what the company has raised since its 2010 inception — are significant more for their sources than their amounts, said Hugh Martin, Sensity’s chief executive, and will help expand and bring to commercial scale what have thus far been mainly pilot projects. Sensity has been working with Cisco since 2014 and has its systems installed in locations as disparate as Newark, N.J.; Bangalore, India; Adelaide, Australia; and Albertslund, a Copenhagen suburb in Denmark.
“There are a lot of trials, but no one has yet said, ‘Do my entire city,’?” Martin said. “Making that work isn’t easy, and it’s going to take the money that we’re raising.”
Indeed, there are many other companies competing for a piece of the rapidly expanding -market for lights, sensors and software. LEDs have proved attractive as cities and businesses look to replace aging, energy-guzzling fixtures with lights that cannot only turn on and off automatically but receive and transmit data about their own status, as well as their surroundings. Depending on the installed or connected sensors, they can detect a range of factors and activities, including motion, congestion, pollutants, gunshots or, increasingly, a particular shopper in or around a store.
Both GE and Acuity executives are looking to smart-city projects, which use a canopy of connected streetlights as the wireless infrastructure to coordinate city services, like easing traffic congestion, sensing when the garbage cans are full or even picking up on suspicious behavior at a pedestrian plaza.
Cities worldwide are expected to replace 50 million aging fixtures with LEDs over the next few years. And while some are mainly interested in switching from older technologies to ones that use less energy and last for decades, others want to use the savings in electricity costs to help pay for the sensors and software that allow for the more sophisticated use of the LED’s electronics and communication abilities.
GE has also been developing smart-shopping capabilities, working with Qualcomm to employ a sort of GPS system that can give retailers a shopper’s location and orientation in a store within 5 centimeters of, say, a shelf or product display.
For Simon, which develops and operates malls around the globe, the investment in Sensity is part of an overall transition to an automated shopping experience, where consumers can receive alerts on their smartphones about open parking spaces near their destinations, as well as special offers from stores as they roam the mall.
Simon has been using Sensity’s systems at a few locations in the last few years, and has been impressed enough with the energy savings and management capabilities to move ahead with a companywide installation — some 20,000 pole lights that can communicate with the Sensity network.
Simon has begun adding cameras to read and analyze traffic and pedestrian patterns in its parking lots and plans to design and test a parking spot locator, said Tim Earnest, executive vice president for mall operations.
“We’ve identified a number of areas that we think we can operate more efficiently and/or provide our customers with a better experience with this technology,” Earnest said. “The possibilities are much, much greater than that. But obviously we have to prove that we can do these very basic things, and we’ll build on from there.”
Acuity, which has licensed Sensity’s technology for use in the lights it sells, sees a market in universities and industrial campuses as well as smart cities and retail, said Richard K. Reece, the company’s chief financial officer. Acuity recently bought ByteLight, which provides indoor location software for LEDs, to better pinpoint shoppers in a store — even when the shopper’s smartphone is in a pocket or a purse.
Executives say they are excited by the prospect of broader adoption of these tracking abilities, but privacy advocates have raised concerns about the technology racing ahead of considerations about how to use it responsibly. Reece acknowledged that concern, saying that most retailers were designing their programs so that shoppers would opt in.
“It’s still a lot of test pilots at this stage,” he said, adding that retailers were experimenting to find the right balance of access. “There’s a fine line between being helpful and being creepy.”
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