Bringing Home the Beacon

Last Friday an interviewer asked me about a developing tech trend that I found particularly interesting. APPARENTLY I’m one of the only people considering Beacons right now, given the half-cocked eyebrow that greeted my response.

Last month, though, Tech Crunch published an article touting the future of iBeacon and other proximity technologies. In the three years since the concept was announced by Apple, already 500 companies have burst into this void and deployed over 6 million beacons. This is an industry allegedly set to deploy over 500 million ‘Beacons’ into our commercial environment within the next 5 years.

 

AND NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT IT.

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Source: Google Trends (iBeacon)

We can’t even chalk this mass ignorance up to the complicated nature of technology. It’s a very simple concept. Beacons are small Bluetooth-enabled devices that wirelessly transmit web content and notifications to nearby smartphones. You simply walk past one while your phone’s Bluetooth turned on and receive a relevant notification, whether a coupon for a store, their Yelp review page, or information on a historical landmark.

what-is-a-beacon-example

Source: http://sourceoneevents.com/expo-technology-trends-2016/

These devices are relatively inexpensive, simple to set up, and may have the potential to revolutionize the future of marketing. These should be the next big step for virtual reality and the Internet of Things (Ah! buzzwords we’re familiar with…) but chances are, you’ve never heard anything about beacons.

 

So how did this happen?

Interestingly there is speculation that this stagnation may be the fault of Apple, which underestimated the appeal of this technology when it was launched (as an aside at its developer conference). The company may have not wanted to start a competition with, and generate publicity for, Android’s ‘me too’ offering, Eddystone. Many surmise that Apple will soon launch ‘iBeacon 2.0’ designed to advance the proximity capabilities and make it a more native fixture of their iOS.

This speculation is certainly well founded and this beacon update may be coming very soon. One of the largest hurdles facing the adoption of Beacons was the fact that many smartphone users kept their Bluetooth turned off. As we’re all aware, Apple’s latest iPhone recently gave a pretty good reason for consumers to turn it back on.

This certainly isn’t the only obstacle facing the adoption of this innovative, straightforward Beacon technology. Companies just can’t seem to get it right. Consumers aren’t interested particularly interested in gimmicky coupons or random product recommendations migrating from isle endcaps to their phone screen.

 

This is where social media should come in.

Beacons (or other proximity technologies) have the potential to become one a hugely disruptive and transition the world quickly into augmented reality. These technologies have many of the same benefits of virtual reality, but without the barriers of obtrusive hardware or specialized software development. The limited scope may also prove an easier adjustment to those warier of technological shifts.

An app called Traces (in beta testing since 2014) allows users to leave messages in the real world that can be seen publicly, or just by friends. It bears striking resemblance to Pokémon Go, in that users must travel to different locations in order to be able to access their content. Think about the enormous utility that could come from translating other popular smartphone apps into the sphere of augmented reality, especially if coupled with social media platforms.

There is a tremendous opportunity to simplify the user experience with digital technology and help users digest the constant flow of media that is all around us. Imagine walking through Boston’s North End and being able to instantly access information about every intriguing restaurant you pass – from menu offerings to Yelp reviews, even a list of your contacts had dined there and their rating of experience! Not since people started texting has the real world around us been so social.

Facebook and Instagram feeds could appear as you walk past locations where your friends had shared. And although BC’s Gasson Hall would be particularly crowded with media, this could be enormously helpful on college campuses. Students are constantly inundated with Facebook invitations to campus events, or conversely, walk past loud groups gathered on campus with no idea what’s happening. Beacons could remind you to be back in an hour for an upcoming lecture nearby, or help you identify events in progress that you wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

Beacons also present an enormous opportunity for businesses to collect data (and of course, open the associated pitfalls that accompany consumers’ data and their privacy concerns). Stores can easily chart customers’ experiences based on where they’re spending their time and whether or not they enter the store or end up purchasing nearby products. And although H.O. Maycotte of Forbes described this beacon technology as “the highway via which data can be ethically exchanged for services, goods or just improved experience,” it seems that many may not be on the same page. Appboy found that “when polled, 30% of people said that messages like the notifications triggered by beacons are ‘very annoying’ and 62% don’t want brands to track their in-store movements”.

 

Yes, there are still hurdles to overcome.

But with the growing prevalence of Bluetooth and virtual reality, believe me, proximity technology is coming. Tim Cook is on board with augmented reality, and we all know that when Apple speaks the world seems to follow suit. Social platforms are primed to start leading the way in this technological leap, and can fight for their relevance as the digital world starts to make its home in the real world.

 

Featured Title Image from http://blog.vmob.com/2014/06/six-degrees-of-kevin-beacon/, confirming that the internet really does have a graphic for everything.

10 comments

  1. Great post! I think beacons are super interesting and I agree that having them around campus would be a game-changer (especially for events). It does seem like beacons are a big part of IoT but very few people talk about it. I think people are more interested in VR and AR since its a futuristic topic. I did speak to a company once that was trying to implement beacons into high-profile jails in order to track the movement of prison guards. This would help them ensure that guards were were sticking to their scheduled route while on duty and would notify authorities if they were behind.

  2. Really nice post. Honestly, I had forgotten about Beacon, but it does still have potential if the right uses for it are identified. A book I might recommend if you’re interested in this stuff is Daemon by Daniel Suarez (and the sequel). It paints a pretty compelling vision of an AR enabled society that could be made possible by technologies like Beacon.

  3. bishopkh1 · ·

    Really cool post! I didn’t know much about Beacon, and your post actually got me really excited for the potential that’s there. I think you make a good point about the privacy of these though. On a large scale, they could essentially turn into trackers – definitely borderline creepy for me. I wonder how consumers will react to their location being so susceptible with just the enabling of bluetooth. Curious to see the evolution of beacons – thanks for sharing!

  4. Austin Ellis · ·

    Really great post! I had never heard of Beacon, but it seems like a really great idea. You brought up a good point about Bluetooth, as I very rarely have mine on unless I am driving or using my wiresless headphones. But as you mentioned, by Apple forcing everyone to use Bluetooth for their new headphones, Beacon becomes a much more viable option. I would like to see locally focused marketing used via Beacon; I can imagine walking around downtown Boston, and making a dinner decision based on a coupon that popped up on my phone. Some really great opportunities, thanks for sharing with us.

  5. Really interesting post and I believe Beacons are going to be super relevant when the Iot begins to blow up even more. A lot of companies are beginning to use it/in conversation of using it in their storefront strategies when people drive by their stores or pull up into a parking stall. It will be interesting to see what other possibilities will come out of this tech and see how much this might blow up or be forgotten.

  6. magicjohnshin1 · ·

    Super awesome read about beacon technology! I was thrown off at first and had to reread the word ‘beacon’ again. I really enjoyed how you tied it in with social media and augmented reality. I truly believe that virtual reality and augmented reality are both within our grasp and will hugely impact our lives soon. This beacon technology seems like a huge tool for companies to be able to take on this initiative and build further. This sounds like a huge opportunity. Great post and can’t wait for read more, cheers!

  7. Really interesting post! My company has explored beacon technology in the past and ultimately decided to go in a different direction. I think it’s one of those technologies that is just waiting for the right application in order to become the next big thing. I do feel that brands will need to be careful about advertising pushes however. Knowing that smartphone users are actively blocking ads on mobile, bringing ads into this space may lead to more blocking services.

    1. olearycal · ·

      I agree about what you said about the ads. So many of the big name apps we use today started off as just fun content. Only once Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat had an established user base did they initiate advertising. The app that would use beacon also has to be sure to not overuse data or drain battery because it seems like a technology that is constantly searching for a signal.

  8. copmania12 · ·

    This post was really well researched and articulated- well done! I have never heard of the beacon before, and its an intriguing idea. The last statistic that you references resonated with me in that I don’t think I would be interested in letting any business or brand send spamming coupon codes or marketing pop-upts to my phone. Can you imagine trying to use your phone while walking down a street like Newbury? It would be virtually (no pun intended) impossible! It reminds me a bit of Airdrop in its functionality, and if Beacon is only limited to friend-to-friend interaction, I question how effective it will be. Should be interesting to see if this leads anywhere. Thanks for your post!

  9. Tyler O'Neill · ·

    You definitely choose an incredibly cool and unique topic! Hopefully the response helped you get the job! It’s definitely scary how overwhelming our world could potentially be with augmented reality in future years. As you briefly mentioned how areas such as Gasson would be “crowded.” I am wondering how this will manifest itself within the applications that were to share events, photos, and posts. The first question I have is if the phone would be able to handle all the information coming in at once. If so, how would it prioritize information? How would data usage be affected by these “crowded” areas? I think that there is definitely a lot of promise in the industry, but I am unsure of how long it will take for the beacons to be successful and catch on.

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