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ByteLight Unveils NFC Alternative Called Light Field Communication

timothy posted 1 year,25 days | from the critical-mass-is-the-critical-factor dept.

Businesses 75

IndoorGPSguy writes "Gigaom is reporting Boston-based startup ByteLight has launched a new product called LFC (Light Field Communication). This technology is a new alternative to NFC. It works by transmitting data through an LFC terminal, which is then picked up by the camera on any smartphone. Customers can tap their phones for mobile loyalty programs and mobile payments. It works on any smartphone with a camera, unlike NFC, which doesn't work on iPhones. Gigaom writes: "According to ByteLight, the advantage in using LFC over NFC isn't just accessibility (nearly all smartphones have cameras while NFC chips are harder to come by), but also expense and flexibility.""

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Hello? Security? (2)

hipsterdufus (42989) | 1 year,25 days | (#44445905)

If it is light flashes, what's to prevent someone from snooping it from afar? Convenient technology often means insecure technology. Weird to develop a product just because one of the major phone vendors don't support a protocol. Seems like that vendor should add that feature to their phones, rather than re-invent a new protocol.

Re:Hello? Security? (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44445947)

If your protocol can't cope with someone snooping on the traffic without beeing compromised, it should probably not be used...

Re:Hello? Security? (2)

Moblaster (521614) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446011)

Snooping is not so much the issue; rather it's the fact you need a $500 piece of paper to display the equivalent of a lit up QR code.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

Waffle Iron (339739) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446841)

Snooping is not so much the issue; rather it's the fact you need a $500 piece of paper to display the equivalent of a lit up QR code.

And in turn, a QR code needs a multi-megapixel camera to achieve what usually could have been accomplished by tapping five characters into a URL shortening service.

Re: Hello? Security? (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44449359)

Sorry to burst your bubble, but back here in reality, a VGA (about 0.3 MPx) is quite adequate to resolve QR codes of reasonable size.

Re: Hello? Security? (1)

Waffle Iron (339739) | 1 year,25 days | (#44449477)

Sorry to burst your bubble, but back here in reality, a VGA (about 0.3 MPx) is quite adequate to resolve QR codes of reasonable size.

These days, VGA resolution camera is even harder to find than a mulit-megapixel camera.

But at any rate, you missed my point completely.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446245)

If your protocol can't cope with someone snooping on the traffic without beeing compromised, it should probably not be used...

Is a snoop-proof protocol even possible in theory if you only have a simplex connection to work with? According to their obnoxious and buzzword-heavy site, this communication method of theirs is one-way only. The blinkenlight blinks, the phone camera decodes. That rules out most, possibly all, of the actually-secure mechanisms for providing a safe channel over an insecure link.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

michelcolman (1208008) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446615)

You could add a camera to the terminal, and just display codes on the phone's screen to send data in the other direction.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | 1 year,25 days | (#44447319)

I think that's basically what threema [threema.ch] is doing. They could also do a data-plan key exchange, but there are many merchants who operate in areas with no cell coverage, and WiFi is too difficult to use opportunistically on most phones.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

sjames (1099) | 1 year,25 days | (#44447191)

Only with a key sent over a different communications channel.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

jcrb (187104) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446335)

If history teaches anything it is that just because an insecure protocol should not be used does not mean it will not be used.

If anything since "insecure ~= simpler than a secure protocol" it almost insures it will be used.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

jeffmeden (135043) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446347)

If your protocol can't cope with someone snooping on the traffic without beeing compromised, it should probably not be used...

It took Wi-Fi a long long _long_ time to come to this rather obvious conclusion, so excuse me if i have trouble putting my faith in a new, monolithic, patent-encumbered system just because it doesn't suffer from the exact same vulnerabilities NFC does. Dollars to donuts there will be many nefarious uses for those flashes of light. (maybe involving dollars *and* donuts? hmmm)

KFC: Keyed Field Communication (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44445971)

More about it here [youtube.com] .

Re:KFC: Keyed Field Communication (1)

Chris Mattern (191822) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446037)

It's finger-linkin' good!

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44446019)

NFC has the same problem. You just can't see it with your own eyes.

Re:Hello? Security? (2)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | 1 year,25 days | (#44449205)

"NFC has the same problem. You just can't see it with your own eyes."

NFC has a far bigger problem, because (A) its security was broken before it was even widely available, and (B) researchers showed they could snarf NFC credentials from smartphones from several feet away, using very cheap equipment (on the order of a few hundred $). And that's when the NFC wasn't even actively in use... just turned on.

Add to that the fact that if you had a large enough antenna array, you could put it behind a wall TENS of feet away, and catch all the NFC transactions going through the checkout lanes in an entire store. Who would be the wiser?

People tend to forget that weak RF signals are not security. Not against relatively sophisticated equipment, anyway. Remember the researcher who read peoples' passport credentials from their pockets, via their RFID chips, from 30 feet away in his car? (That was in San Francisco a few years ago.) The same guy helped break NFC.

With LFC, you could put it up against a guard (like a rubber eye cup) and there would be no way to see the signals at a distance. You can't do that effectively with NFC.

The only useful purpose for NFC right now, in my opinion, is for transferring contacts from one phone to another. But you could do that with the IR on a Palm Pilot 10 years ago. I have NFC, and have never even turned it on.

Re:Hello? Security? (2)

jeffmeden (135043) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446309)

If it is light flashes, what's to prevent someone from snooping it from afar? Convenient technology often means insecure technology. Weird to develop a product just because one of the major phone vendors don't support a protocol. Seems like that vendor should add that feature to their phones, rather than re-invent a new protocol.

They don't seem to be too concerned with the other limitation: the communication is strictly one-way, from the POS to the handset, and the handset then has to find it's way back to the payment system (via wifi or mobile). This is the reverse of how NFC payments typically work and will require a much different architecture. Stores already have barcode scanners at every POS, and with a little software they can easily interact with non-NFC smartphones that display loyalty info on the screen. This is the big reason NFC isn't really taking off; loyalty cards are already replaced by apps (no extra hardware needed) and not too many people are comfortable handing all their credit cards over to a payment system in the cloud. And of course, it's all thoroughly patented so how much do you think ByteLight is going to charge per POS? This is a (patented) solution looking for a (profitable) problem, nothing more. It's the modern CueCat.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

ferguson731 (547854) | 1 year,25 days | (#44447449)

It's the modern CueCat.

Now they just have to get Wired to bundle one with every copy of the magazine.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

rullywowr (1831632) | 1 year,25 days | (#44449269)

...and RadioShack to toss one in with every purchase, after asking firmly for your full name, address, and phone number.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

Bogtha (906264) | 1 year,24 days | (#44456671)

Stores already have barcode scanners at every POS, and with a little software they can easily interact with non-NFC smartphones that display loyalty info on the screen.

Depends on the type of scanner. Laser scanners are widespread and don't work well with phone screens.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

Max Kington (3000721) | 1 year,25 days | (#44447507)

If it is light flashes, what's to prevent someone from snooping it from afar? Convenient technology often means insecure technology. Weird to develop a product just because one of the major phone vendors don't support a protocol. Seems like that vendor should add that feature to their phones, rather than re-invent a new protocol.

They're for different use cases, I'd have thought. I can have an NFC smartcard which has processing capabilty on the chip, take a Mifare Ultralight for instance and I have a hard to get at private key and a bunch of other symmetric keys for different uses *and* the ability to computation operations on the card. I can also stick the card in my wallet. If I just want an NFC tag which is a glorified barcode with more data storage or a way of doing some simple data transfer then I can see the parallels to other uses. NFC is a pretty big umbrella term for *a bunch of dufferent things* one of which is a use case like bytelight. They're not entirely comparable.

Re:Hello? Security? (1)

FlyingCheese (883571) | 1 year,25 days | (#44450119)

You're new to the whole Apple thing, aren't you? Why use tech the plebs use when you can use something else entirely and try to force everyone else to make the switch too?

Battery drain. (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44445917)

Using the camera is going to require more power than a simple radio transceiver. I guess as a temporary fix it's OK, but they need to get NFC implemented on all phones and abandon the legacy phones that do not have it.

Much safer, too. (1)

michelcolman (1208008) | 1 year,25 days | (#44445921)

You actually have to point your activated camera at the terminal, so you can't be hijacked by some rogue transmitter using a zero day flaw to root your phone via the NFC chip when you happen to pass within range.

Re:Much safer, too. (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44446243)

Yeah, but they could just introduce blinking to the power grid that hacks everyone's phone who has a camera on. Much better scale with that.

Re:Much safer, too. (1)

BrokenHalo (565198) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446247)

You actually have to point your activated camera at the terminal, so you can't be hijacked by some rogue transmitter using a zero day flaw to root your phone via the NFC chip when you happen to pass within range.

Indeed. It seems to me that NFC is inherently insecure, which is why I don't trust it enough to use it. A transaction involving the camera should be safer, unless there's some God-like hacker out there sending encoded lightning flashes from the sky.

Re:Much safer, too. (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44447361)

So instead of being several cm (meters if you only require) for NFC, you can use a modified pen light from several miles away (with a good pair of binoculars, and possibly a tripod mount)?

Last I've seen, people hold their phones to their head when using it... or leave it sitting in front of them with the camera pointed away while playing TheLatestGameFad(tm)?

Re:Much safer, too. (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44448761)

but if they are doing those things they probably aren't running the ReadGoofyLED app to interpret
the blinky lights. This is a one way inbound message that needs an active receiver application -
it doesn't hack the camera sensor directly.

Infrared Anyone? (1)

ghotihed (928294) | 1 year,25 days | (#44445951)

Sounds like going back to the days of infrared communications on phones. I'm not sure how this is better or worse than QR codes, except perhaps that you can cram more data into the stream.

Re:Infrared Anyone? (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446359)

Sounds like going back to the days of infrared communications on phones. I'm not sure how this is better or worse than QR codes, except perhaps that you can cram more data into the stream.

Worse. From their site:

"ByteLight’s software provides a low-cost way for pushing hyper-targeted digital content to shoppers and associates within a retail store. With sub-meter accuracy and sub-second latency – ByteLight redefines mobile marketing and workflow management. "

Whatever its technical merits or faults, this concept is an abominable spawn of data-mining marketing scum. At least IR was a (painfully limited) data transport layer that was nominally in the user's service.

Re:Infrared Anyone? (1)

rullywowr (1831632) | 1 year,25 days | (#44449297)

It just parses the data into Morse code and decodes it on the other end.

Well. (1)

Chris Mattern (191822) | 1 year,25 days | (#44445959)

I guess the National Football Conference will have to step up its game now that it has competition.

NFC already has competition (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44447947)

If you don't like the NFC, there's the AFC.

If you don't like American football, there's the CFL.

If you don't like professional football, there's college football.

And if you don't like competent football, there's the Chicago Bears!

All phones had light communications a decade ago (1)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44445961)

The infamous infrared returns?

Bluetooth 4 BLE (1)

the computer guy nex (916959) | 1 year,25 days | (#44445973)

NFC is over a decade old and never took off. Industry needs to shift behind BLE.

Re:Bluetooth 4 BLE (3, Interesting)

Pi1grim (1956208) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446195)

It is taking off now in bank cards, phones and tags. Most of the phones make after GNex have NFC onboard. So I wouldn't burry the standart yet. Especially in favor of some obscure standard, that could as well be an animated GIF with QR codes.
NFC rocks with it's simplicity - you touch something - it starts working (an URL is opened, phones are paired and file transfer is initiated and so on).

Re:Bluetooth 4 BLE (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44447377)

Galaxy S2+, Nexus S+, most credit cards (the latest one I got has one), most debit cards (Interac Flash) these days have NFC now.

It's pretty much industry standard at this point.

Re:Bluetooth 4 BLE (1)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44448479)

No, bank cards are not NFC. They're ISO 14443, which NFC emulates. There's nothing NFC-specific about those applications.

NFC, by contrast, isn't going anywhere and Google has even started dropping the secure element from its devices. The new Nexus 7 doesn't support Google Wallet.

Technobabble? (1)

codl (1703578) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446005)

"Light Field Communication" sounds like a very pompous name for what infrared-capable phones did back in the day. I would read the original article to verify my claims but the links are broken.

LevelUp (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44446139)

What's wrong with the LevelUp approach (QR code displayed by your phone)? Works great for me.

Re:LevelUp (3, Informative)

TheSkepticalOptimist (898384) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446677)

Let me describe for you most people's experience with QR codes:

1) Launch a special app because QR doesn't seem to be a built in feature of any phone.
2) Hold the phone in the right way ensuring there is enough light on the QR code, or to ensure the LED doesn't wash the QR code completely white. Wait for the image to stabilize and focus because phone cameras suck at close range.
3) Hit a button to scan, watch a green or red line move across the QR code.
4) Watch the phone fail to register the QR code
5) Move the phone in or out to make the QR code more centered in the view box.
6) Push the button again to scan, watch it fail again
7) Move the Phone
8) Push the button
9) Watch it fail
10) Move the Phone
11) Push the button
12) Watch it fail
13) Move the Phone
14) Push the button
15) Watch it fail ...

1001) Move the phone
1002) Push the button
1003) Fuck it and walk away.

Re:LevelUp (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44447817)

Most people just skip to step 1003

Re:LevelUp (1)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44448381)

Are you from the past?

All the QR scanners I've seen process the video stream from the camera, so you hold the camera in front of the qr code and as soon as it is detected it is processed, without you having to do steps 3-n as you describe. Also, they tend to show helps on the video screen, so they display a square so the user can center the qr there, or flash instructions when something was incorrectly detected or the angle was bad.

Really, go out of your basements and look at the real world.

Re:LevelUp (1)

QuasiSteve (2042606) | 1 year,25 days | (#44448875)

Parent poster's snarky remark aside, the post deserves being modded up. If your experience with QR codes is anything like GP's, you may be using an app that simply fails at scanning.

While I haven't seen a QR code worth scanning in a while, last time I did (as part of trying to scan a bar code resulting from a bar code font, printed on custom forms before standardized ones with proper bar codes were made available - had to try 5 different apps on an iPad 2 before one of them finally decided to read it where others decided it wasn't a valid barcode and thus wouldn't even bother), my phone scanned the code while I brought it up to put the code into view. It was somewhat blurry, it was at an angle, it was keystoned, and the app still correctly scanned it and pointed me to the associated URL before I could even maneuver the phone around to get a nice straight-on shot.. and this is on a budget Android 2.1-era phone.
Of course if your phone only has a QVGA camera that needs full sunlight just to take murky pictures, you're doomed. But then you'd probably not be in the target market for that QR code either.

QR codes and even cameras are rarely the problem - the apps to scan them with vary greatly.

That said, I still haven't seen any particularly good use for them outside of, say, relaying a Bitcoin address.

Re:LevelUp (1)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44451279)

1003) Fuck it and walk away.

This is about ByteLight, not Fleshlight

Re:LevelUp (1)

thegarbz (1787294) | 1 year,25 days | (#44452929)

What are you scanning the barcode with? A calculator?

I've never seen a QR code fail to scan except in a dimly lit room where the camera was unable to focus on it and even then I got that working after my 3rd attempt at manually moving the camera around.

Re: LevelUp (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44453277)

You don't seem to understand. With LevelUp, you have an app on your phone that _displays_ a QR code, and the vender has a reader. I have _never_ had a problem having the code be read. I suggest reading up on it; it's a nice system. (Saves me money, too.). I'm just disappointed it's not spreading more rapidly.

Re:LevelUp (1)

hobarrera (2008506) | 1 year,20 days | (#44490759)

Let me describe for you most people's experience with QR codes:

1) Launch a special app because QR doesn't seem to be a built in feature of any phone.

No phones implement the described standard either. The point was why we should adopt one over the other.

2) Hold the phone in the right way ensuring there is enough light on the QR code, or to ensure the LED doesn't wash the QR code completely white. Wait for the image to stabilize and focus because phone cameras suck at close range.

Modern phones have autofocus. It's never taken me over a second to scan a QR code. And it doesn't matter if I rotate my phone 45 (or any amount, for that matter).

3) Hit a button to scan, watch a green or red line move across the QR code.

Modern phones have autofocus. I don't press anything on my almost two year old Nokia N9. Just open the app (two touches at most), and point the phone. No rotation, no button-pressing.

4) Watch the phone fail to register the QR code

Can't reproduce that, sorry. Get something from 2011 or later.

You experience sound pretty much like what I remember QR codes being like in 2009. Hardware has evoled, times have changed. The only valid point you make, is the lack of built-in app. (though Nokia provides an official one through their download centre, in my case).

Payment Platforms? (1)

Graydyn Young (2835695) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446273)

And just who are you going to be paying with this technology? Good luck getting MC and Visa on board with a new technology when they just finished a huge push for NFC support.

Re:Payment Platforms? (1)

xpax666 (2625167) | 1 year,25 days | (#44451039)

Exactly. The monolithic organizations who've put their weight behind NFC aren't going to give up because a) somebody hacked together a blinky lights app in their basement or b) Apple can't be bothered to keep up with technology.

links? (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44446283)

Why the fuck add empty links!?

More like Flickerfield (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44446333)

In contrast to NFC, LFC is far removed from using the name-giving light field in a novel manner.

LFC (1)

der (3003283) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446373)

It works on iOS....that's HUGE.

Re:LFC (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44446829)

It works on iOS....that's HUGE.

Uh, why? Are you saying that iOS users are more prone to buy into a stupid gimmick like NFC?

Re:LFC (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44446927)

That's a marketing one-liner, he probably works at Bytelight.

No new standard needed (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44446503)

Why in the world are they trying to push a new standard? If you just want to send a serializable data stream - HELLO - there's QR codes. They can be dynamic on the merchant side... Not to say duh, but... DUH.

Pretty obvious ways of doing this (1)

davidwr (791652) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446537)

For un-encrypted communication just flash the lights or display an image using any common one-way protocol.

For encrypted communication, have a camera on the terminal and have the user put his phone up to the terminal and display a picture or pictures that represent an encryption algorithm and a key, then aim the phone's camera at the terminal to receive the encrypted message using any common one-way protocol.

Sounds familiar... (2)

Guspaz (556486) | 1 year,25 days | (#44446819)

ByteLight, ByteLight, turn on the magical flashing lights...

One way? (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44446895)

I haven't read the article (obviously) but how do they use that camera to transmit data from the phone back to the terminal? :)

Captcha: females - who said Slashdot doesn't have any?

Privacy, battery drain and security (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44446961)

Let's have the camera constantly running to pick up the light signal and drain our batteries. Plus now no power kiosk displays will require electricity for the ByteLight, NFC didn't require power. Maybe advertisers will use it to snap photos from the front and back side cameras at the same time; you have to look at the screen to aim at the tag.

As stated above QR codes seems like a much better solution.

I know tonnes of hardware solutions already using NFC and RFID; this new ByteLight isn't going to catch on.

Not even thinking about LFC (1)

mooingyak (720677) | 1 year,25 days | (#44447205)

I'm more concerned with whether or not NFC is better than AFC. I suppose we'll find out in February.

Bitrate (1)

The Raven (30575) | 1 year,25 days | (#44447297)

With the abysmal data throughput of most cellphone cameras (~10bps assuming a 30fps video sensor) this can only send the ID of the nearby LED light. This is not equivalent to NFC, which transmits encrypted data directly with the device. As they describe on their site, it is just indoor GPS... your phone uses network traffic, queries the ByteLight server to ask what data is relevant to your physical location (the business pays ByteLight to store this), and sends it to you.

NFC: Method for securely transmitting data over a short distance, primarily for inventory and purchasing applications.

"LFC": Inexpensive method for performing indoor location determination via the cloud, primarily for marketing and tracking applications.

Not anything like each other.

Really? (1)

sjames (1099) | 1 year,25 days | (#44447609)

Someone had half a good idea (I can add full duplex with just a few seconds of thought), then surrounded it with a bunch of marketing woo of dubious value and named it ByteLight.

It'll never run at more than 15 bps since they cannot assume more than 30 fps progressive from the camera and it's inevitably asynchronous. So 1 byte per second with error correction.

I can think of a few ways to make it suck less, but they'll have to pay me first and I won't be held responsible if it provokes a Fringe event or summons a UFO.

Re:Really? (1)

wiredlogic (135348) | 1 year,25 days | (#44449437)

This is really just a more refined version of the Timex Datalink [wikipedia.org] system. There was even a serial port driven LED accessory for use on notebooks and platforms where the screen flickering CRT video driver wasn't an option.

I'm sure they got a shiny new patent out of it any way since they've made the huge innovation of using a camera rather than a photocell.

Re:Really? (1)

sjames (1099) | 1 year,25 days | (#44449685)

It is closely related, though the datalink could go much faster in theory (I don't know how fast the link actually was) since it could present several high to low transitions per video frame and they could freely choose the reciever's sample rate.

Not a light field! (1)

harperska (1376103) | 1 year,25 days | (#44448655)

When I saw the title, I thought it might actually be a communication protocol based on light fields, which could be pretty neat. Kind of a beamed data hologram. Such a system might have a potential for high data density as the amount of data in a light field is pretty crazy. The reality of this just being a blinking LED was quite the let down.

Prior Art (1)

mtrachtenberg (67780) | 1 year,25 days | (#44449041)

Wow! What a great idea! Light field communication!

Didn't this used to be called "posting a sign?"

NFC is cheap (1)

wiredlogic (135348) | 1 year,25 days | (#44449301)

NFC ICs cost $1 in large quantities. Apple is just being lazy.

Yet another protocol (1)

Darinbob (1142669) | 1 year,25 days | (#44449967)

Yet another protocol I have to manually disable and opt out of...

why not Ultra sonic ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | 1 year,25 days | (#44452755)

May be the speed is lower, but

My Nokia 3310 had this feature (1)

thegarbz (1787294) | 1 year,25 days | (#44452935)

It was called an IR port. I think I just stepped back in time.

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