ibeacon-logoWith the emergence of the ‘Internet of things’ – where every-day physical objects are connected to the internet and are able to identify themselves to other devices – there are a lot of buzzwords flying round around, and none so commonly heard than iBeacon.  And it’s a word that’s got retailers and marketers salivating. But what is it?

According to Apple, who licensed the technology with their iOS 7 offering, iBeacon is “a new class of low-powered, low-cost transmitters that notify nearby iOS devices of their presence”.

‘Beacon’ hardware triggers activity in enabled Apple devices when they come into ‘near’, ‘immediate’ or ‘far’ range of one of the transmitters. The connection is made via in-built Bluetooth Low Energy (‘Bluetooth Smart’) technology, and can be used to activate a function in the iPhone or iPad or pull specific data from the web.

That’s right, it’s our old friend Bluetooth back in another guise. Bluetooth (named by Sony Ericsson after Harald Bluetooth, a Viking king who united Denmark and Norway and who therefore was very good at getting people to work together) is a wireless technology standard for exchanging data over short distances.

Beacons by jnxyz.education (13570744845)              Beacon Blue: Find and talk to trees with iBeacon

All beacons have a unique identity, affecting the way an iOS device reacts when placed in their wireless zone. The system is non-invasive; users need to download a store-specific app and agree to allow notifications to be delivered to their device. The beacons themselves do not transmit or collect data; they only trigger a specific Bluetooth response from the personal device, meaning that issues of customer privacy are (relatively) few.

One product, many uses

The system is gloriously simple and versatile. Until now, Apple have sold the tech as a marketing and retail tool: customers visiting a store will receive targeted notifications to their device depending on the areas of the shop they visit. Based on this first interaction, the device can be configured to allow payment by phone or product information, offers or recommendations. All Apple stores use the system.

The technology’s backward-facing capabilities are equally valuable for marketers, allowing them to gather data on how long a customer stood in a certain part of a store and which products interested them most. In March 2014, Apple sold its 500-millionth iPhone. That means the iBeacon has the potential for deployment on a massive scale, garnering much interest from POS experts like Gecko and mobile developers Mubaloo, both based in Bristol. Mubaloo recently set up a division dedicated to the technology, MiBeacons.

There are several areas where the technology falls down, however. Requiring users to download store-specific software is one. This causes a two-step interaction which disrupts the seamlessness of the user experience, and who wants a mass of iBeacon apps stored on their phone or iPad? The other challenge, says Mubaloo director Sarah Weller, is that the tech requires users to have their Bluetooth turned on at all times. In a previous life, Bluetooth was engineered for sending image files between mobile phones.

The technology drained batteries and could open devices to the transfer of malicious files. Convincing consumers that Bluetooth Smart hardware uses a fraction of the power of older mobile systems and is safe to use is a challenge that will need to be overcome before the technology is widely adopted.

This is a shame as applications for the technology go much, much wider than retail; any situation where proximity and location are at issue will benefit from iBeacon. Safety is one: Nivea recently created armbands to alert parents when their children have wandered off, Mubaloo have developed software which warns building site workers when stepping outside of a designated zone. Companies handling confidential materials could shut off the camera functionality of their employee’s phones; buildings could tell people to get more exercise, and use the stairsplants can tell passers-by when they need watering. The technology is also well-suited to enhance gallery exhibitions, and is already in use at Antwerp Museum (see video above).

iBeacons close to home

Here in Bristol, Pervasive Media residents Anagram and Clavium have pushed the locational aspect of the technology to its limits. ‘Door into the Dark‘ is an interactive documentary artwork where users are blindfolded and subject to experiences based on the moves they make, all triggered by iBeacons. Premiering at the recent iDocs festival, the exhibit is showing at various locations across the UK in 2014.blispa-ibeacons

For something closer to home, iBeacon consultancy CPA Group have create Shufdy, a network of beacons across Bristol that they hope will form part of a wider beacon ‘trail’. The group have also organised a treasure hunt across the city. And there’s Bath-based Blispa who can provide iBeacons for rent for events, festivals, games and competitions, letting users get audio guides, play scavenger hunts or trigger quizzes and interactive exhibits.

We’re excited to see the evolution of iBeacon technology and how you creative folks will implement it across the South West. What are you waiting for?

Are you using iBeacon technology? Let us know below, or catch up with us on Twitter.

Callum Dunbar