That functionality relies on the Global Positioning System (GPS) standard; so, while your phone can pinpoint where you are within 11 feet if permitted, our smartphones don’t know what floor we’re on, or how close we are to the window or refrigerator.
What if your phone had a way to do this, so that it could, say, remind you to send your grocery list only when you actually walked into the kitchen, or only tell you to pay your bills online when you sit down at the computer in the family study on the first Tuesday of the month?
That technology, too, is already in existence. Apple debuted iBeacon technology at a developer’s conference in 2013 with a major caveat: it only worked with the company’s devices. While iPhone and iPad users with the feature enabled can currently use it in Apple stores and at many Major Baseball League stadiums, adoption has been slower with retailers — perhaps because it leaves out a sizable portion of shoppers.
Google recently released an open source version of the software that enables Bluetooth low energy (BLE) beacon hardware technology to communicate with smart devices running either Android or iOS, called Eddystone. Google says the name comes from a famous UK lighthouse.
The imagery of a lighthouse is deliberate.
Just as a lighthouse sends out a signal in the form of light to all ships within its radius, devices enabled with this Eddystone technology are able to transmit to (as well as receive information from) smartphones in the background. They can broadcast or simply house data that can then be pushed to or requested by the user of the smart device.
These transmitters work by using low energy Bluetooth to send signals that can be picked up by devices with this same technology nearby. As long as your phone is in range of a beacon, it can get updated information about the environment you’re in.
For example, let’s say you’re on vacation in another city, and you want to find out if the bus stop you’re standing in front of can take you to your destination, or if you should hail a taxi.
The sign for the bus stop itself could potentially be a beacon in disguise that could emit this information to your cell phone in the background. Just as paper or electronic bus schedules are widely available now at no cost, so could this be in 15 years.
Instead of searching your phone for the bus stop information, when you looked at your smartphone, smartwatch or tablet, it would show you that there was an information beacon nearby that was already sending that data to you, and if you cared to receive it, you could have that bus schedule in one swipe.
Theoretically, this could be updated in real time by the beacon’s communications with other data sources — so instead of just the bus schedule, it might be able to tell you whether the bus was on time, show what traffic was like, or link you to alternative modes of travel.
It could connect you to a stream of data that would tell you what points of interest were on the way, what coffee shop you have a coupon for, and if your travel companion was close enough to come pick you up on their way instead.
If you’ve ever watched Minority Report (or similar films set in a highly technological future), you’ve seen an imagined vision of highly personalized advertisements, shopping assistants that are hyper-local to the customer, and coupons pushed to a browsing customer’s wallet.
As this technology matures, applications could be developed that give local businesses access to the same technology that Apple’s iBeacon offers, but open to every customer with a smart cell phone, watch or tablet.
For example, you’re likely already familiar with “near me” searches, where you open your phone and conduct a search such as “restaurants near me.”
If you were a restaurant owner, here’s what you could do utilizing beacons:
It’s a bit early for most businesses to run out and purchase BLE beacons that will work with this cross-platform, open-source Eddystone format that Google has released. However, you could theoretically start testing the technology in-house.
Here’s what you would need.
With these in place, you could hire a developer to start creating simple apps for your place of business to see how the beacon and smartphones interact. Or, if you’re savvy, you might be able to start this project yourself.
Maybe instead of checking a security badge log to see when employees arrive, you could have their cell phones register with a beacon. Employees could avoid foot traffic jams at popular office locations such as the kitchen or printer if a beacon could tell them how many people were gathered there at the moment.
These same studies might give you an early look at possible concerns that could arise, such as privacy and legal issues. When and how can you begin interacting with a customer via beacon technology? How do you make sure that customers know they can opt out?
You could also get a head start on explaining how any existing apps that you’ve already created for your customers will work when they get the Eddystone upgrade.
However you take advantage of this technology in its infancy, just as with the Web, this change is upon us and likely unavoidable. As previous trends have shown, it’s better to adopt these technological changes ahead of your customers. Better to embrace the exciting changes than to be left behind.