iBeacons are everywhere. Literally.
In fact, they are already in use in over 250 million iOS devices, 254 Apple retail stores, Macy's, US Major League Ballparks, Times Square and countless other locations.
Ever since Apple quietly introduced iBeacons at WWDC last year, the buzz has been growing surrounding the possibilities for the technology based on Bluetooth Low Energy beacons.
Bluetooth beacons open up new possibilities for indoor location, in-app contextual information and smarter payments. The technology is built on BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy), included in Bluetooth 4.0, which provides new protocols for ambient, continuous, low-power connectivity.
Much of the attention in this space has focused on the opportunities for retailers and consumers. However, Mike Crooks, commercial director at mobility specialist Mubaloo, believes that there are vast opportunities for beacons in the enterprise market.
Beacon devices continuously broadcast a set of unique identifiers using BLE. Apps, designed to work with specific sets of beacons, can listen to these broadcasts to recognise when they come into range and to estimate their proximity to a beacon. The unique IDs can be used to differentiate which content is activated within an app.
A scenario that involves two beacons in different locations would allow content to be delivered depending on which beacon the user is closest to. This allows apps to provide the right information, in the right place, at the right time.
1. Making buildings truly smart
Beacons could be a useful way of managing a physical workforce. A security and facilities team can analyse the flow of people around the building to help identify ways to improve internal movement, or check that people are out of the building in the case of an emergency.
For security management teams, a specially designed app could automatically register when patrols pass beacons placed around the building. The team could then stop manually reporting after each shift, as the system will register the patrol route, and how much time was spent at each point. Equally, the app would know if the rounds have not been completed and can alert the user. Most importantly, the backend system would be able to raise an alert if an employee was by a marker for too long.
Adding Mobile Device Management (MDM) into the mix, beacons could theoretically disable or enable device features such as the camera or microphone in sensitive areas rather than across an entire geolocation. This gives corporate IT greater control over what employees can access, to ensure that sensitive information doesn't get compromised. Try doing that with paper.
It's interesting to consider a future where beacons could be an integral part of a person's daily work routine. For example, beacons could act as a way to record when employees enter or leave their office building. If a smart device such as an iPad were used as a beacon, it could activate its camera as an employee approaches and use facial recognition technology as an added security measure.
Then, when employees arrive at their desks, an app on their smartphones could effectively act as a two-factor login system for their computer based on the user's proximity to their workstation. The user's phone and computer profile could automatically update itself to show they're available.
Beacons could be used to show when meeting rooms are free, or who is present in which room. If an employee leaves their desk to attend a meeting, their computer could lock itself and set an away status. When in a meeting, it could be possible for the meeting leader to set a restriction so that guests can only receive documents when they are in within the meeting room, based on their detected proximity from a beacon.
Unlike NFC, which requires users to be within seven inches of a transmitter, a single beacon can be used to cover an area of up to 30 metres.
Whilst all of this may sound a little like a user privacy nightmare, it would only work with the company's own app designed for their employees. It is the app which is doing the intelligent activity by detecting proximity from beacons and surfacing relevant information or in-app services.
2. Overhauling construction and maintenance
Beacons could also benefit from being used in the construction industry. Building sites may not always have the best connectivity and sometimes require a quick and easy set up. By setting up beacons companies ensure employees follow health & safety checklists when carrying out tasks. Beacons could also be used in this environment to help provide project managers with an overview of where employees are at any one time and use data collected to help ensure work is being carried out properly.
On arrival, employees could be delivered a checklist of tasks for the day. If there is a need to take photos or note the location of issues on site, beacons could help to annotate with pin-point accuracy based on where the work was added.
There are a vast number of possibilities for construction and utility teams to bring new levels of insight to projects. This could lead to improvements in site layout, project planning & management and workforce productivity.
Beacons can last for up to two years on a single watch battery and therefore the maintenance impact of a beacon installation can be minimal. With the addition of wearable technology that also uses Bluetooth Low Energy, the opportunities to think about new ways of improving workflows dramatically increases.
3. Making leisure & tourism truly reactive
Earlier this year, restaurant chain Yo! Sushi announced that the iPod based POS system their employees use had reduced customer waiting time by 30 seconds. This was only one part of the story though. The system allows serving employees to use devices for live billing and ordering food, and has reduced the kitchen staff workload, improved billing accuracy and added intelligence about customer food preferences.
It would be easy to imagine how, with beacons at each table, restaurants like Yo! Sushi could implement the technology to let customers order food and drink from their table, request help, or even pay their bill. Looking at it from another perspective, beacons on tables could be used to change the order screen for waiting staff as they approach a table.
In this scenario, if a waiter or waitress approached your table to take your order, their device would know that it is near to your table and only show your orders. Beacons could also help with loyalty; if the customer had booked online or had an app for the restaurant (if it was a large chain for example), a centralised system could know which customers were sat at a given table and show some of their favourite food or dietary needs so that the waiter could make more personalised recommendations.
Because devices can also act as beacons, it would be possible for customers to pay for their bills using their phones. When the server gets close to the customer, the customer's phone could open a notification with the bill for the meal and let them pay for what they've had. Perhaps this could also be used for sharing the bill between friends.
4. Bringing online analytics into the real world
One of the key reasons beacons offer so much potential is that they provide real-world data that can be analysed to enhance the end user's experience. The easiest way of thinking about this is to look at online analytics with websites. Web teams are able to see how long people are staying on pages, how they navigate around and which areas they're most interested in to help improve usability and design over time.
With beacons, businesses will be able to apply similar principles to learn about how people are moving around in different physical environments. The more a user passes by a single beacon, the system will be aware that it's the same device and activate a notification or change the dynamics of the app to be relevant to its surroundings.
For example, if an engineer approaches a machine, the app would automatically bring up the relevant screen and log that they've come into proximity. Alternatively, moving through a gallery would see the app automatically navigate to show the relevant screen or information based on the surroundings.
While some people may be concerned about the privacy implications, it's important to understand that unless a user has already shared their personal details in an app, the stores won't necessarily know any personally identifiable information about them. In much the same way that apps can only use location data by asking for permission to do so, they will need permission to look for beacons. Not only that, the right app needs to be installed on the device and Bluetooth to be turned on.
Beacon technology may face difficulties when it comes to user education. When Bluetooth was first released on phones it enabled people to share images, contacts and other data when in range of each other. Despite early popularity, it wasn't long before there were warnings about people using Bluetooth to send malicious files to other users. There were also warnings that hackers could access a user's contacts list via Bluetooth. Security concerns and an awareness that Bluetooth could drain a device left many people turning Bluetooth off.
With Bluetooth 4.0, battery drain is no longer a concern. Bluetooth 4.0 means that only a minimal amount of power is consumed. There are also less security implications because beacons are broadcast-only devices and they don't access data on a user's device. This alone might not be a good enough reason for people to have their Bluetooth turned on at all times, but there needs to be value for the user to do so.
This is an area that could either be bolstered or prohibited by beacons. It could only take one bad experience for users to keep their Bluetooth off if they are spammed by messages whilst walking around a shop or outdoors. The end result of bad implementations could have a disastrous effect on the success of beacons as a whole and the benefits it would bring to both businesses and end users.
5. Ushering in a world of beacons
In true Apple fashion, the buzz around beacons was created based on a word on a slide during its keynote at WWDC 2013. Despite companies like Qualcomm, Estimote and PayPal all talking about beacon technology beforehand, it was Apple who sparked the catalyst for mainstream interest.
This is partly down to the fact that when iOS 7 was released in October, 200 million devices could suddenly become beacons themselves. A further reason is that for the past few years, pundits, analysts and consumers have been expecting new iPhones to support NFC. With iBeacon, Apple doesn't need to.
iBeacons is a core location technology that monitors for Bluetooth Low Energy signals that have been broadcast by hardware beacons. By performing some calculations with the strength at which these signals are detected, the operating system can determine where devices are in relation to other beacons. An app can then activate relevant content or functionality based on this proximity.
Beacons are either low-powered, low-cost dedicated hardware transmitters, or iOS devices equipped with Bluetooth 4.0.
Apple has already spent two years trialling new in-store experiences through its app that let customers scan and buy products with EasyPay, get help or get Genius appointments. With iBeacons, this is already being taken to a new level with notifications about iPhone trade-in prices, or getting product information. This could also be used by Apple for processing payments or helping to load the barcode scanner faster in its Apple Store app.
In many ways, there is actually more value that Apple Stores can gain from its app than what customers get. For customers, it's a way of getting more information about products or getting information relevant to the products they already own.
For Apple, they'll be able to get granular data about the number of people around certain products, information about what customers are most interested in, how much time they spend looking at products, how long they spend in the store and how many customers are coming in looking for help (granted, they'll already have this last one but they might be able to fine-tune that information via beacons).
This, for the retail and consumer space, is why it's important that companies can explain the benefits to the end user. There needs to be value in having Bluetooth enabled and an app open in the background.
For the marketing industry, iBeacons could well become one of the biggest advances in advertising and marketing since the smartphone.
Because iBeacons can help to build a profile of the number of times people pass the location of a beacon, it can deliver highly targeted offers. Without doubt, there will be questions about privacy, security and spamming whenever any technology comes out that includes the word 'tracking'. It will require education and a clear end-user value proposition to get right.
Beacons are expected to become big business. It is still too early to tell whether mobile users will understand the benefits of beacons. A key consideration is that if users don't have Bluetooth turned on, beacons won't be able to do anything of any value for companies or users. Thankfully, with most modern phones, Bluetooth can be turned on relatively easily.