Can networked lighting find you a great parking spot?

Perhaps a journey of 1,000 SKUs starts with a single parking break?

mall parking lot
Credit: Steve Dufour, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The future of retail IT is not going to be in pulling in new data. It's going to be in finding the best ways to integrate all of those data sources to generate new opportunities. One of the best — and potentially wackiest — examples of this is coming from a retail mall lighting company that is using sensor-based lighting equipment to identify shoppers and their cars and even find them great parking spaces. Perhaps a journey of 1,000 SKUs starts with a single parking break?

The company behind this is called Sensity Systems, and it announced last week (July 20) that it has raised some $74 million from the likes of Cisco Investments, GE Ventures and the Simon Venture Group. Sensity is positioning itself as an Internet of Everything company, but in my view, that does the company a great disservice. These guys are really focused on integrating the various data streams that most retail malls are already gathering (security footage, automated lighting controls, Wi-Fi, crowd-counting systems, license plate recognition cameras, etc.) and combining them in creative ways to offer new services and to gain fresh insights.

My favorite scenario is the ability to track empty parking spaces and to direct shoppers to those spots — potentially even, according to one company official, "auctioning off the best parking spots." The magic here is combining sensors already in the parking lots (ones designed to indicate how full the parking lot is at any moment) with real-time video analysis.

Normally, according to Sensity product marketing director Joel Vincent, mall parking analysis systems have delays and are intended to give an end-of-day report on parking lot capacity levels. But by using software to do real-time analysis, the results are constantly updated, Vincent said, allowing mall apps to potentially broadcast parking lot vacancies.

The analysis and the idea behind this are to be applauded. I say this, though, having no doubt that this functionality would never work when it’s most needed — unless parking spots were protected (either by security guards or mechanical bars that blocked access), which is going to be too expensive and complicated. I'm writing this from the land of shopping malls (New Jersey), and it would be amazing if someone entering a mall on Dec. 20 could use the mall's app to lock in a space. But how could it happen? The instant people gets inside their cars — let alone shift the car into reverse — five cars cruising for a space will be in position to take that spot. Even if the app broadcast the space's availability the instant it detects the reverse lights, it would be too late.

The thinking behind the app is worth applauding. Maybe it's an issue of separating one segment of the parking lot and having that area guarded by one security officer? This is all about giving premium customers an incentive to upgrade their app status.

The company's vision extends far beyond the parking lot, but that's where most of its efforts start. That makes perfect sense because it is also where every mall-based retail interaction starts. By starting the customer tracking the instant the shopper's car is spotted and identified as it drives in, the amount of analytical data soars. From Sensity's perspective, everything starts in the parking lot, and the parking starts with Sensity's lights.

"We enable the lighting system to be a backbone for IoT. It's a Wi-Fi network connecting all of the lights together," Vincent said, "and then we add the video nodes (throughout the mall) and you have a distributed analytics engine. We use full-motion video and analyze and extract meta data from that."

For malls that extent Wi-Fi to the parking lots, smartphone-equipped shoppers can be tracked from initial point of detection, and the mall can resume data-gathering as the customer moves out of the range of the parking light sensors. "Once they are networked together, there is a lot of information to be unlocked," Vincent said. "It's doing data mining in real time, instead of doing a batch process at the end of the week."

To be clear, these ideas are not ones that either Sensity or its mall customers are doing today. Sensity is creating an API, and it will be up retail developers what they opt to do with the data, but the more creativity they use, the better.

What's the benefit of real time? That has value only if specific mall retail tenants decide to watch those feeds and to take action — such as sending a text with an offer or preparing to greet shoppers when they are close to the store. All agree that this would require a shopper opt-in, but given that shoppers never read the fine print on apps they accept, that's not much of a hurdle.

Will many retailers be bold enough to use such data? Will malls try to sell premium packages, limiting the ability to contact customers through the mall's app, to only one merchant in each major category? (Note: Vincent pointed out that merchants can always text to a detected phone, but the ability to have a visually appealing message appear within the app's GUI is likely to be much more effective.) "Possibly, if Google was running the mall."

A Google Mall? And retailers thought Amazon was frightening.

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