Imagine pointing your phone at an item in a shop or museum, and immediately bringing all of its details up on your screen.
As we reported recently, a new spotlight from Japanese tech giant Fujitsu offers to do this, by encoding data in light, which can then be picked up by pointing a smartphone camera at an object that the light is shining on (see Fujitsu's diagram, below).
It's the latest application of visible light communication (VLC), which can also be used to provide internet connections through light, or to create highly accurate indoor positioning systems.
The data - which is invisible to the eye but can be picked up by an app on a smartphone or other device - could provide an alternative to QR codes, which allow smartphone users to grab information or find websites by pointing their phone at a display. The disadvantage of QR codes is that they're ugly, and have to be displayed on a screen, poster or label. Fujitsu's system, on the other hand, only needs a light and something to shine it on.
A Fujitsu spokesperson said: 'For aesthetic and practical reasons, it is obvious why using this newly developed technology from Fujitsu would be preferable to that.'
Fujitsu suggests that shops, museums, performance events and tourist sites could all make use of its new technology. It could be used to provide 'point-and-pay' services in shops, or to allow museums and galleries to remove physical signs in favour of digital information that can be tweaked and changed at the curator’s convenience, perhaps feeding into audio-visual guides.
The drawback, it seems, is that every object would need its own individual spotlight in order to provide its own data - which makes it hard to imagine how the technology would work in a supermarket setting, for instance.
Fujitsu's application of VLC would compete with solutions from the likes of EldoLED and Philips, in which luminaires broadcast a unique code in the light they emit, which can be used to triangulate the position of a smartphone to within a few centimetres - like a more precise version of GPS. Retailers are showing an interest in the technology as a way of delivering information related to a user's location in a shop, such as product offers or store maps.
Fujitsu says that the benefit of projecting information directly on to an object is the level of precision you can obtain with one spotlight per object - an indoor positioning system could only communicate information relevant to an area in a store, rather than to an individual item.
One potential issue with Fujitsu's technology is the way different objects reflect, transmit and absorb light. But Fujitsu says accuracy has been improved on this front ‘since this technology uses an image captured by a camera to measure the reflectivity and compensate accordingly.’
A spokesperson added: 'You can point a smartphone's camera in the direction of the object that has the light shining on it. Different surfaces have different levels of reflectivity but this technology is still able to read that data from the light reflecting of an object. The camera does not have to be focused on the light itself.'
The question is, does the world really need a system that encodes data in light, just to replace traditional product displays and QR codes? Well, a few years ago we might have asked whether the world needed a satellite triangulation system when we already have maps and road signs, but now GPS is ubiquitous.
Fujitsu, which is best known for its servers and microprocessors, and also has a semiconductor division, says it is currently testing its data-projecting LED system in various applications, and working to improve accuracy. It aims to have a product on the market by April 2016.
Photo and illustrations from Fujitsu